CHICAGO — Miller Brewing Co. says its new PET beer bottle is recyclable, but some recycling officials are raising questions about its aluminum caps and the impact of amber bottles on the economics of recycling.
Miller's bottle maker, Continental PET Technologies Inc., and other plastics industry officials say the problems can be overcome, and that another steady stream of PET could be helpful to local recycling programs.
Miller rolled out a six-city trial of beer in 20-ounce and 1-liter PET bottles starting in November, the first large-scale distribution of beer in plastic bottles in the United States.
The Miller bottle was the focus of discussion at Rebotec '98, a small gathering of state recycling and industry officials Nov. 10 in Chicago. Rebotec was sponsored by the Plastic Redesign Project, a 32-state coalition of recycling officials that aims to work with industry on packaging design. The project receives funds from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Peter Anderson, director of the redesign project, said recyclers are concerned about the aluminum caps contaminating the recycling stream. And he said separating the amber bottles from the recycling stream will add expenses to an already-fragile industry and require the development of a market for amber bottles.
But he said he is confident the problems can be solved: ``I think there are solutions that let them get their [market] share and don't cause us grief.''
Dan Barthold, director of environmental and energy engineering for Milwaukee-based Miller, said the brewery wants to work with recyclers and is new to plastics recycling. But he said the company is very reluctant to share details of product design before launches.
``You have to be the first on the shelf to get a little bit of market share,'' Barthold said during a Rebotec discussion. ``Sometime [marketing officials] don't tell us about a package. We are a marketing company.''
Marketing issues dominate material choices, he said.
``I would have a hell of a time walking into the marketing VP's office and saying you need to have a plastic cap, when he has been sold by his people on aluminum,'' Barthold said.
In the trial, Miller is using aluminum caps because they have more ``pizazz,'' he said.
Miller is putting any beer sold in amber glass bottles in amber plastic, to keep the beer's identity and minimize changes for the consumer, he said.
A clear version of the Miller bottle has passed tests of its recyclability, but the amber version and the aluminum caps have not been tested, said Warwick Hassan, general manager of business development for Continental PET Technologies in Florence, Ky. Continental PET is part of Owens-Illinois Inc. of Toledo, Ohio.
Continental is making the bottle for Miller, using a proprietary oxygen barrier. Hassan declined to release the test results, but has briefed the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
APR manager Robin Cotchan said the group has concerns about the amber bottles, the aluminum cap and whether the label is easily removed.
``It is still very much in the testing phase, in APR's mind,'' she said. ``We've got to find a market that will take all of the amber bottles down the line.''
Hassan said a significant amount of amber has been part of the plastics recycling stream, but Alan Silverman, director of business development for Constar Inc. in Philadelphia, said large amounts of amber bottles would be new for recyclers.
Hassan also said he does not think aluminum caps are a significant problem because they are in the recycling stream now. But he said the company will be testing the amber bottles and aluminum caps, as well as how the bottles affect dyeing for carpet fibers—a big end market for PET bottles.
The new bottle is just a trial and could be changed, he said.
``This isn't going to replace the glass bottle overnight,'' Hassan said. ``It is designed to meet some marketing restrictions they've had,'' such as selling beer bottles at sporting events and beaches.
Both Silverman and Barthold said that plastic beer bottle trials their companies have been involved in at sports stadiums in New York City and North Carolina have met with consumer approval. Younger drinkers relate well to plastic, Barthold said.
Plastic beer bottles remain more expensive than glass, but prices will drop, said Frank Kitchel, marketing director for Eval Co. of America, a Lisle, Ill. maker of ethylene vinyl alcohol oxygen-barrier additives for plastic bottles.
Eval is within nine months of announcing a solution to dealing with large volumes of EVOH layers in the recycling stream, he said at Pack Expo 98, held Nov. 8-12 in Chicago.
EVOH is used in ketchup bottles, a small part of the PET stream, but the volume expected from beer bottles will require some additional technology, Kitchel said. He declined to elaborate.
The Miller bottle is being tested in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and Norfolk, Va.