Austin, Texas — America's largest soft drink makers are no longer unilaterally opposing plastic bottle recycling legislation, but it remains to be seen if the American Beverage Association, a trade group which represents PepsiCo Inc., Coca-Cola Co. and Keurig Dr. Pepper Inc., will ultimately embrace the idea of bottle bills.
"Traditionally, the industry has been opposed to bottle bills," ABA CEO Katherine Lugar said at The Packaging Conference in Austin.
"You are not going to hear an outright 'no' from us right now. Part of that comes from the fact that each company has set really bold goals for the amount of recycled content they want to be using in their product. We know that a piece of that may evolve around policy. Everything needs to be on the table," she said.
But that doesn't mean ABA is going to automatically accept bottle bills in any form, Lugar said.
"The states that have deposit return systems today, by and large, there are a lot of improvements that need to be made," she said.
Lugar mentioned two hot-button issues for her group that need to be addressed in any bottle bill discussion.
Any program needs to be consumer-friendly, she said. And "if you are going to put a fee on one of our containers, you have to make sure it's going back into recycling infrastructure and to support the very cause that you are trying to do. And that's not the case today," she said.
In other words, states should not siphon off bottle deposits to help fund other portions of government.
"So I will tell you as we go forward, we are going to be very constructive in our dialogue. You are going to hear a very different tone out of our industry, to say that we want to work with you. We want to work to get this right," Lugar said.
"We think there is a lot of stuff that can be cleaned up and be far more effective than what is in effect today. But in all of this, you will not hear an outright 'no.' You will hear a 'no' from us if we think it's a bad, ineffective system, absolutely," she said. "But what you are hearing increasingly here are the kind of principles that are really important to us in looking to solve this problem."
Ten states currently have bottle bills that collect deposits on beverage containers. The systems are aimed at promoting bottle collection after use for recycling.
While ABA now is willing to discuss bottle bills, Lugar said, there still are a lot of "bad" bottle bills out there now.
Lugar's comments at the conference comes a few months after the trade group launched its Every Bottle Back campaign designed to boost the level of PET bottle recycling.
"I think we all know there is a heightened scrutiny in so-called single-use plastics," Lugar said. "There's really been a misperception that our PET plastic is single-use."
"Our PET bottles are made to be reused," she said. "The problem is most people don't know it."
The Every Bottle Back campaign is designed to help people become more aware of PET recycling.
PET bottles are the most recycled plastic in the United States, but its recycling rate is just a shade below 30 percent. That puts the material far behind other packaging substrates such as aluminum and cardboard in terms of its recycling rate.
Lugar has led ABA for about a year, and she said she couldn't comment on past positions the industry took in opposition to bottle bills.
While Lugar said she believes there are problems within the current state-by-state bottle bill landscape, she stopped short of commenting on the idea of a national bottle bill that would create a unified standard across the country.
ABA represents companies in the nonalcoholic beverage industry, with members including soft drink giants as well as local bottlers and industry suppliers.
About 72 percent of ABA members' products are packaged in PET bottles in the United States, Lugar said, and aluminum checks in at 22 percent. Glass is 1 percent, and other packaging is at about 5 percent.
"I think we all know there is a heightened scrutiny around so-called single-use plastics. Not only have we seen this increasingly come up in the halls of Congress and in governors' mansions and state legislatures [but also] corporate earnings calls. And I can say this, my own kitchen table, where my environmentally passionate 14-year-old has been driving this point home with us well before I started this job," Lugar told the audience.
"We're going to have to really understand how to define and differentiate our product as not single use because what is so important to explain to people is that very intentionally, our PET plastic bottles were made to be remade," she said. "The problem is people don't know it."
Every Bottle Back includes an education campaign, with an upcoming unified on-package message regarding recyclability, and funding community recycling efforts.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area was recently announced as the first to receive funding through the Every Bottle Back program to improve recycling infrastructure to capture more PET bottles.
A materials recycling facility owned by Balcones Resources is receiving $2 million to make improvements including optical sortation, "machinery with artificial intelligence" and robotic arms for separation, ABA has said.
Other efforts include work in both Dallas and Fort Worth to improve recycling access and education, and North Central Texas Council of Governments, which includes 230 communities, will aim to decrease recycling contamination.