Every minute, Americans throw away more than 200,000 beverage bottles and cans. In a day, that´s 300 million wasted containers that become litter or get sent to landfills and incinerators.
Beverage container waste increased more than 50 percent between 1992 and 1999, due in large part to increasing reliance on single-serving, throwaway packaging like the 20-ounce plastic bottle.
The most significant environmental impacts from wasting these beverage containers are squandering energy resources, habitat destruction and pollution from extracting and processing virgin resources to make aluminum and plastics. Wasting these bottles and cans is an environmental shipwreck, the equivalent of needlessly dumping at least 32 million barrels of oil a year. It´s like an Exxon Valdez-size supertanker filled with oil being thrown away every eight months.
At the same time, major recycling businesses and product manufacturers simply cannot find enough material to satisfy demand. The carpet industry is a case in point.
Beaulieu of America, a leading carpet manufacturer, imports plastic bottles from as far away as Canada and Mexico to make carpet, while estimates are that 85 percent of PET bottles in Georgia are thrown away.
One of the most important questions regarding beverage container waste is how to halt the rising tide of bottles and cans tossed on the trash heap. Experience indicates a strong financial incentive is needed.
Environmental leaders and recycling advocates targeted Coca-Cola Co. four years ago because it is the industry leader and broke its promise to make new plastic bottles with 25 percent recycled content. Last month, after Coke announced some small steps forward on recycling, the GrassRoots Recycling Network said it plans to expand the campaign to include PepsiCo, the second largest beverage maker.
Soft drinks bottles and cans contribute approximately 48 percent of the beverage container waste, followed by beer at 32 percent. The growing plastic waste problem really started with introduction of the 20-ounce plastic bottle in the 1990s.
Purchasing and consuming beverages like soft drinks, bottled water, juice and sports drinks, packaged in single-serving plastic bottles, creates new challenges for recycling collection. Increasingly, these beverages are consumed away from home and convenient recycling opportunities.
Noncarbonated beverages are the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry. At the same time, noncarbonated-beverage containers are also the least recycled, since most are not subject to bottle-bill-deposit requirements, except in California and Maine where the laws were updated to reflect the changes in beverage markets.
Investors and environmentalists are pressing Coke and Pepsi management through shareholder campaigns to begin using 25 percent recycled plastic in making new bottles and to achieve an 80 percent national recycled rate.
Coke Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Doug Daft told shareholders April 18 that his company plans to use 10 percent recycled plastic in bottles by 2005 and that the company will work with a new alliance, called Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling (BEAR), to identify means to increase recycling.
By contrast, PepsiCo has no plans to use recycled plastic in its bottles and reportedly decided against joining the BEAR stakeholder dialogue on increasing recycling of beverage containers. When the acquisition of Quaker Oats Co. is complete, PepsiCo will own sports drink industry leader Gatorade, a good news and bad news story from the recycling perspective.
Gatorade reportedly uses some recycled plastic in its bottles, but the overall national recycling rate for these bottles is only about 10 percent.
Investment funds sponsoring the shareholder recycling resolutions are calling for Coke and Pepsi to stop opposing bottle bills or develop alternatives that can achieve a comparable 80 percent recycling rate. That is where BEAR comes into the picture.
BEAR is convening a multistakeholder recovery project, examining ways to boost recycling collection. A guiding principle in BEAR recognizes that without a financial incentive the waste problem will continue to get worse, particularly as reliance on plastic bottles grows.
Increasing collection of plastic bottles is essential to meet the needs of recycling-based manufacturers and to enable Coke to achieve even the modest 10 percent recycled-content goal.
Refundable deposits, whether voluntary or mandated by law, achieve the highest recycling rates. In Michigan, which requires a 10 cent deposit, approximately 95 percent of beverage containers covered by the deposit get recycled.
Hopefully, the unique collaboration of businesses and environmentalists can develop realistic plans to increase recycling. Otherwise, government may have to step in to address this environmental shipwreck.
King is Washington-based senior policy analyst for the Container Recycling Institute.