LOS ANGELES — Senate Bill 332, the expanded bottle bill enacted January in California, has been either a blessing or a curse for California's local governments, bottle producers, recyclers and recycling advocates — depending on which side of the bill each is on. "It does a terrible disservice to the citizens of California," said Terry Bedell, manager of packaging technology with Clorox Services Co. of Pleasanton, Calif. "It is increasing the cost of buying those products at what in my opinion is a marginal, if any, environmental benefit.
"The only caveat I'd put around that is it may actually help decrease litter."
At the recent Take it Back! Pacific Rim conference in Los Angeles, Bedell urged attendees to consider the waste reduction benefits of Clorox's 1998 switch of the popular Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing from a glass bottle to PET.
"That eliminated 10 million pounds of waste," he said. "To achieve that kind of waste reduction, glass packaging would have to be recycled [at a rate of] over 100 percent.
"And we saved corrugated [packaging] by reducing our partitions and having smaller boxes."
Local governments and activist groups do not see things in exactly the same light.
"Getting things out of the landfill isn't the be-all to end-all of recycling," said Rick Best, policy director of the Sacramento-based lobbying group Californians Against Waste. "The benefits of recycling are reducing the consumption of the resource in the first place."
Best said the expanded bottle bill is a major step toward his organization's goal of making manufacturers — instead of consumers or municipalities — responsible for their waste.
"We think each [manufacturer of a] material ought to take responsibility for its own waste collection," Best said during an interview at the Los Angeles conference. "Materials that are easy to recycle, like aluminum, have subsidized the more difficult to recycle materials like plastics."
Environmental Products Corp. — or Envipco — blames the bill for forcing the company to temporarily cease its bottle-recycling operation. The company had been the only collector and cleaner of curbside PET bottles in California, said Jerry Weis, senior vice president of plastics.
During a visit to the Riverside, Calif., plant, Weis said because of the expanded bill, the Plastic Recycling Corp. of California ended its 11-year contract to supply bottles to Envipco five years into the agreement. That, in turn, forced the shutdown.
That is not to say that Weis opposes the idea of expanding bottle recycling in California.
"Unfortunately, this is the target market for the purchase of bottles by Asian — particularly Chinese — brokers. We compete with them pretty heavily," he said. "The Asians can transfer a container of PET bottles from here to Hong Kong cheaper than I can ship 100 miles up the road.
"The freight is a real nemesis to us."
The most significant change in California's law was that it expanded bottles covered by the deposit program to include noncarbonated beverages. Now recyclers are wondering how the system will deal with new multilayer and colored bottles that are beginning to hit store shelves — such as Miller Brewing Co.'s PET beer bottles, developed by Continental PET Technologies Inc. of Florence, Ky.
According to Weis and Gerald Claes, director of Environmental Programs at Graham Packaging Co. in York, Pa., that container is only the first of many like it.
During his presentation at the Los Angeles conference, Claes said not only will more PET beer bottles be available, but consumers also will see more multilayer single- and multiserve juice containers, pickle and salsa jars in PET or even a yet-to-be discovered resin of the future.
"New types of resins are going to come out. I don't know what they are, but I can assure you somebody is in a white coat sitting in a lab now inventing some new resin that's going to do all kinds of wonderful things," he said. "And we're going to be sitting here five years from now talking about how this package is going to affect the recycler."
Claes oversees Graham's large in-house recycling operation.
Weis has given some thought to how new developments in bottle technology will affect the recycling community, but he is still not as worried about those bottles as he is about the quality of bottles he has to deal with under the expanded bill.
As more barrier and multilayer bottles enter the waste stream, he and other reclaimers will have to develop new ways to deal with them.
"Barrier bottles are going to be so prevalent in our future that it's unbelievable," Weis said. "The reason I support the Continental bottle is that it's got a major recycled content layer, and it can be used back in that container."
Weis said recyclers are concerned about the challenges of recycling amber bottles and other possible colors to come, but he is confident they eventually will overcome those challenges.
"Our biggest concern is the amber color. We'll learn how to deal with that," he said. "Fifteen years ago green was a problem — now 30 percent of the bottles in beverage containers are green, and we've found a home for them."
Even the Los Angeles division manager of citywide recycling, Lupe Vela, is willing to be patient in the wake of more types of plastic bottles coming in through the city's 10-year-old recycling program.
She may be a proponent of take-back legislation, but she also takes a practical position in implementing it where plastics are concerned.
"If we're going to do any sort of [mandated] take-back in collection, it would have to be very, very specific," she said. "That's probably good for us, because we need to define the plastics that come in. Part of my research is to find out who's willing to take it."
At the same time, though, Vela asked that critics of the new law be patient.
"I think it will work itself out. Processors are going to be out there looking for markets," Vela said. "Everybody's saying the sky is falling because of all the supply [issues], but until I see a major downfall I'm not going to be worried.