Atlanta — With a loudening chorus against single-use plastics, the PET bottle sector faces an uncertain future, Jon Larson believes.
"I believe today, the PET bottle is at a crossroad. It's at a crossroad for the consumer. ... It's at a crossroad for the industry," said Larson, who is in technical sales for equipment maker Krones Inc.
"Are we are hearing all the noise, seeing all the pictures, reading the articles? Or are we just all ignoring it and hoping it will all pass?" he added.
"I think if you're honest with yourself, you saw this coming," he said at the recent PETnology Americas 2018 conference in Atlanta.
Larson's company makes both bottling systems and recycling equipment and is providing equipment for the ambitious rPlanet Earth project near Los Angeles.
That effort, now under construction, plans to house both PET recycling and packaging manufacturing under one roof, saving energy and transportation costs in the process.
Back in the day, single-use PET beverage bottles transformed the way American's interacted with their packaging, moving the industry away from a glass bottle deposit-and-return approach.
But the convenience for one generation becomes an inconvenience for the next, which has a growing concern and awareness of environmental issues.
"They think of it as a waste," Larson said.
Instead of a singular recycling message, children today are being taught about reducing and replacing, he said.
"How are they going to purchase products? Are they going to be passionate? Will they avoid plastics? Will it change the marketplace?" Larson asked. "One thing is for sure: each generation is becoming more and more against plastic. This is the crossroad I think we are at."
He pointed to a growing number of bans for different single-use plastics around the country, including bags and straws.
"We hear about it all the time. Bans on straws are very popular right now," he said. "Is this just a trend or is this just the start of something that's going to escalate?"
The industry knows about the changing atmosphere, but it is not clear if it is doing enough to address the issues at hand.
"We're all stakeholders in this industry. And if we don't decide to do something on our own, this industry will shrink. It will continue. It won't go away, I don't think it will ever go away. Single-use plastics, there will be more attacks and there will be another generation that will refuse to use them," he said.
But the industry does have an answer, Larson said.
With a post-consumer PET bottle recycling rate of around 30 percent in the United States, there is plenty of room for improvement and a way to show society more material can be recaptured, he said.
But increased PET bottle recycling rates will not just automatically happen. Achieving higher recovery rates will require more facilities like rPlanet Earth. Bottles also must have improved design for recycling guidelines to help promote their recovery.
And this, he said, is a big one, a "cuss word" to some in the business — more bottle bills.
"That's a nasty word in this industry," he said, "but it works."
Bottle bills will help improve the supply available to meet recycling demand.
"Something has to happen," he said. "We need people to lobby for it, not against it, in this industry."
Short of bottle bills, Larson said, curbside recycling needs to be more widely available.
And both recyclers and those using recycled content need to stick with the market in both good times and bad to help stabilize supply and demand.
The consequences of inaction, he said, will be more bans or taxes. Or even warning labels, he said.
"We're good at making bottles and innovating plastics. But we're not, as a group, doing well enough to recover it," Larson said.