Wal-Mart, a company much under fire, received great reviews for its relief work after Hurricane Katrina. The company can keep the praise going by declining to distribute a new disposable container that, if widely adopted, will become a recycling nightmare.
Big-box retailers sell bottled water and don't want to be bothered with the reusable polycarbonate containers in which much bottled water is still sold. That has created a demand for the new 4-gallon “one-way” bottle. The bottled-water industry is catering to that demand and understands that size counts.
As the nation's biggest retailer, if Wal-Mart adopts this new bottle nationwide, it will become the standard, just as McDonald's, when it started selling Chicken McNuggets, immediately became the world's largest retailer of chicken. The new bottle may be convenient for big-box retailers, but it will create a huge problem for others.
If the one-way container is fully adopted, the 350 million bottles delivered to homes and offices in the United States each year will find their way into municipal recycling programs and landfills at an annual cost to the public of more than $400 million. In California, which often sets the national trend, the additional cost will exceed $56 million.
Californians may not be aware of the hundreds of millions of dollars their communities spent during the 1980s and 1990s building facilities to process residential and commercial recyclables. Now refuse and recycling system operators will have to spend between $200 million and $300 million for additional collection vehicles, residential storage bins and recycling processing equipment. That hefty sum for the equipment manufacturers will be paid via added taxes and increased fees for public services.
In recycling plants, plastics such as the 2-liter soda bottle fall through screens for further treatment. The 4-gallon water bottle is too large for these screens. It will travel across the screens and wind up contaminating the fiber stream.
Lightweight but high-volume bottles for milk, detergent and other liquids constitute a disproportionate cost of the collection and processing of recyclables. The new 4-gallon bottle will push those costs even higher.
Wal-Mart, Costco and Lowe's, among other retailers, should weigh such information carefully. Because of their size, they may prove to be the deciding factor that will serve to increase public costs and undermine municipal recycling programs. Huge retailers could also be in the position of helping the bottled-water industry to indulge the luxury of extracting its product from public supplies, at minimal expense, and shifting its disposal costs onto the public sector.
Joe Sloan is owner and manager of Sloan-Vazquez LLC, an Anaheim, Calif.-based company that provides solid waste and recycling advisory services. This column originally appreared in Waste News, an Akron, Ohio-based sister publication to Plastics News.