As PET markets grow, recycling challenges still loom large. Consider two recent events — Miller Brewing Co.'s announcement that it will sell beer in PET, and an ambitious trial under way by two trade groups to try to boost recycling of single-serve bottles, such as the popular 20-ounce soft drink containers. Miller has handled its transition to plastics pretty well.
Initially, the company was ill-prepared and flat-footed when the Los Angeles City Council, some environmental groups and recyclers lambasted its bottle. The criticisms: It had a label and cap that gummed up plastic recycling, and the lack of good markets for its amber resin could really cause problems for cities and recyclers.
But the company and its bottler, Continental PET Technologies, spent the last year talking with environmentalists and participating in the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers "Champions for Change" process to improve the design.
As an aside, one environmentalist involved with Miller and in discussions with Coca-Cola Co. on its use of recycled content said pointedly the beer maker has been much more open about its plans and challenges than Coke.
Miller committed to making the bottle more recycling friendly, and, importantly, to using post-consumer recycled content and initially paying a premium for amber. That kind of cooperation should be the model.
Questions remain about the impact on recycling markets and the impact of the nylon barrier in the bottle. Miller will not use recycled content until this summer, and the brewer needs to carefully monitor the impact on the market.
Steve Babinchak, president of PET recycler St. Jude Polymer in Frackville, Pa., said it looks like there will be enough automotive and fiber applications for the amber that markets will develop: "By the time this stuff comes out in any kind of quantities, we should be able to handle it."
Meanwhile, the soft drink industry is busy with its own recycling challenges.
The National Soft Drink Association and the National Association for PET Container Resources are paying for an impressive advertising and collection effort in Columbia, S.C., to recycle more single-serve containers. Another will follow in Albuquerque May 8.
The popular 20-ounce soft drink bottle gets much of the blame for falling recycling rates.
The trial's a good one, and the groups deserve credit for trying. You can argue about where responsibility lies — a public that consumes and throws them out or an industry that profits from it.
But industry should hold off on the accolades. Enviromentalists are justified in pointing out that one or two trials in midsize cities won't make much difference. If industry and governments want to get serious about single-serve, more needs to be done.