I´ve followed debates about bottle bills and falling container-recycling rates for several years, and listened to the plastics and beverage container industries argue that bottle bills are a unique burden on them and their customers.
That´s true. But as I see it, what the industry offers as an alternative won´t make a big dent in the problem.
Industry´s main solution is for communities to switch to an all-bottles curbside collection system. The idea is to boost recycling by getting people to put in the bins shampoo bottles and cooking oil containers and other bottles that they normally would not think to recycle.
That´s an important step forward. Communities that switched to all-bottles collection saw recovery grow an average of 13 percent, according to the American Plastics Council. But when I apply my journalism math, I don´t see how that does much to combat sagging recycling rates, climbing packaging waste and increased consumption of natural resources.
Curbside programs recycle just 18.5 percent of the available containers that enter all homes. That´s according to a recent report from Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling, which got its data from industry consultant R.W. Beck Inc. Beck prepares APC´s annual recycling rate study.
If every community switched to all-bottles recycling, what would that get them? Adding 13 percent more material to the 18.5 percent recycling rate gets them a recycling rate of 21 percent. (18.5 percent times 1.13 equals 20.9.)
I know that's a simple analysis. That 18.5 percent figure is a recycling rate for all materials — plastic, glass, aluminum and other packaging. But industry advocates point out that “all-bottles” programs boost PET and high density polyethylene curbside collection 50 percent, from 35 percent. Still, not everyone has access to curbside programs, and relying on curbside tells governments that it's primarily their problem.
When I ran my analysis by the National Soft Drink Association, they said that calculating a national impact for all bottles is “highly uncertain” and said that it is meaningless to apply all-bottle plastic numbers to curbside figures. But several consultants said what I´ve got is a good, rough estimate. And an APC recycling staffer said it is fair to say all bottles won't get anywhere close to the 80 percent recycling rate goal set by BEAR.
Of course, industry groups do help recycling by pushing all-bottles programs and doing trials to boost recycling of single-serve PET containers. But, to offer a bit of a reality check, those plans really just tweak the margins.
I think Sherry Enzler, a Minnesota state government official who served on the BEAR working group, has a good idea. She doesn´t want a bottle bill, but she wants the industry to get into a national dialogue on container waste, like the talks the carpet and electronics industries are part of.
Said Enzler: "I think if the industry doesn´t step up to the plate and doesn't help us solve this problem, they are saying to the individual states, you have no alternative but to do a bottle bill."
Plastics News' editorial page has taken a stand advocating bottle bills, but I´m not saying a bottle bill is the only way to go, or that it´s a politically realistic alternative. Maybe it´s time for a new approach. Luke Schmidt at the National Association for PET Container Resources, for one, said he´d welcome a dialogue to explore options.
A good place to start, I think, is to recognize that all-bottles programs keep most of the burden on governments, and that it isn´t a long-term solution.
Toloken is a Washington-based reporter for Plastics News. His beats include recycling, legislative, political and medical news and trade associations.