New data released at the National Recycling Coalition's annual conference challenges the widely accepted idea that the growing popularity of single-serve beverages is killing container recycling rates.
The Beverage Packaging Environmental Council conducted a yearlong study of U.S. beverage drinking habits using, for the first time, proprietary marketing data from major U.S. soft drink and beer producers.
BPEC unveiled the results Aug. 29 at NRC's Congress & Exposition in Minneapolis.
The bottom line is, 90 percent of the containers end up in places where they can be collected easily, said Kevin Dietly, a principal of Westford, Mass.-based Northbridge Environmental Consultants. Improving curbside recycling alone could increase container recycling significantly, he said.
``We realize that home is still the place where we have to keep our efforts,'' he said. ``It would be unfortunate to continue to move forward on the basis of anecdotal information.''
Two-thirds of beverages are consumed at home. People drink 18 percent of their beverages at a bar or restaurant. They drink only 8 percent somewhere other than at home, at work, in their cars, in bar or in restaurants.
Americans consumed 25 percent more beverages per capita from 1990 to 2002, according to the results. But the tonnage of packaging remained unchanged during that period. Through a 23 percent increase in packaging efficiency, beverage makers used 11.8 ounces of container per gallon of beverage in 2002, compared with 15.4 ounces per gallon in 1990.
The average size of beverage containers was identical - 20.7 ounces - in 1990 and 2002. Single-serve containers accounted for 87 percent of beverage sales in both of those years, according to the BPEC study.
``It's really remarkable, given the evolution and changes in the beverage packaging industry, that there hasn't been a more radical change toward smaller-packaged products,'' Dietly said. ``The hard truth is, recovery over this period has not been good.''
Washington-based NRC commissioned Northbridge Environmental, along with DSM Environmental Services Inc. in Ascutney, Vt., and Cascadia Consulting Group in Seattle to perform the study.
Beverage container recycling rates have fallen in the past decade. Aluminum cans peaked at 66.5 percent in 1997, but fell to 51.2 percent in 2004. The PET bottle recovery rate has plummeted from 39.7 percent in 1995 to 19.6 percent in 2003.
The PET industry, as well as many recycling advocates, blamed the increased popularity of single-serve containers consumed away from home for the decrease, especially in the PET recovery rate.
``I think if you asked anyone what the cause of the declining beverage container recovery is, the away-from-home consumption would have to be the first answer from everyone,'' Dietly said.
``Even I said it,'' said Kate Krebs, executive director of NRC. ``The research that came out was groundbreaking.''
Groundbreaking not only in that it disproves a widely held belief among recyclers, but also because researchers gained the trust of the beverage industry to provide proprietary data they use to market their products, she said.
BPEC members include Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., Nestle USA Inc., Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc., Coors Brewing Co., Miller Brewing Co. and Heineken NV.
The beverage industry goes to great expense to find out where customers consume their beverages and under what circumstances, Dietly said.
Some of the data was valuable, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a trade group in Arlington, Va., that advocates container deposits.
``But what makes them think that suddenly just having more curbside programs or even improved curbside programs is going to make the difference?'' she said. The next step for BPEC should be action, not more research, Franklin said.
``I think people are really tired of the foot-dragging and stalling,'' she said.