According to the Ontario-based Institute for Beverage Container Landfilling (IBCL), not enough used containers for soft drinks and other beverages are making their way into landfill, despite years of concerted effort by industry stakeholders to thwart or underfund alternatives.
“The latest statistics are disappointing for plastic bottles and steel or aluminum cans,” says IBCL Executive Director Confusa Wonk, who noted that landfilling of used beverage containers has stalled at about 50 per cent in most North American jurisdictions, with the remainder being lost to municipal curbside recycling programs.
In its latest report, Beverage Container Landfilling: What’s Best for Industry is Best for You, the IBCL notes that the most egregious programs offer consumers cash incentives to return their empties to stores or recycling depots.
“These so-called ‘bottle bill’ jurisdictions just don’t get it,” says Wonk, noting that 80 per cent or more of containers in areas with deposit-refund systems may be diverted from disposal — alarming rates virtually unknown in most of North America, where the absence of financial incentives ensures that at least half (and often more than three quarters) of containers make it to landfill.
“If we’re not vigilant the whole continent is going to look like the freakin’ Beer Store,” Wonk exclaimed, referencing the Ontario system that diverts almost all that province’s beer, wine and spirit containers.
“Although we prefer proven direct-to-landfill technology,” adds Wonk, “we take consolation knowing that in areas where we’ve supported curbside recycling, at least half the containers will likely still get to landfill for years.”
Waste and recycling consultant Clara Fynothing, Ph.D., concurs.
“Our analysis shows deposit-refund systems mire employees in the dirty ‘sunset’ waste diversion business,” Fynothing says. “We applaud industry’s hiring the brightest minds out of university to thwart these Dickensian systems where people sort and recycle cans and bottles all day, and help them transition to work in exciting jobs in today’s high-speed canning and bottling plants, and aluminum bauxite mining and smelting operations.”
Fynothing points to yesteryear’s inefficient “closed loop” system in which bottles (including those for milk) were collected under deposit and refilled numerous times — an inefficient nightmare for today’s soft drink and alcohol beverage industry that efficiently delivers its packaged goods directly to the landfill with only a quick pit stop in consumer kitchens or parking lots.
“Picture your poor old grandmother,” Fynothing notes, “lugging her exploding glass empties back to the store, then having to buy drinks in glass bottles previously reused dozens of times. Yuck!”
Fynothing is thankful nowadays to go out and buy individually-bottled water shipped in diesel powered trucks rather than via the Victorian-era technology of water taps and pipes in her home. Plus the products are loaded with sugar and hidden extras like caffeine and phosphoric acid that taste great and keep kids alert and ample.
Interestingly, years ago Ontario (home of the pesky blue box) set a goal of 40 per cent waste landfilling by 2008; typically, this goal came and went with little enforcement.
“At least we negotiated to only pay 50 per cent of net recycling costs in Ontario,” says the IBCL’s Wonk, whose real concern is product stewardship and European-style “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) that would require her members to pay all the end-of-life management costs of their packaging. Such schemes, the IBCL report notes, often have the perverse effect of discouraging companies’ design-for-disposal (DfD) efforts and forcing them to internalize their waste packaging costs rather than externalize them onto consumers and the environment where they belong.
Thankfully, by setting up industry funding organizations with arcane rules, and by selecting which service providers collect and processes their materials, IBCL member companies have kept disruption of container landfilling to a minimum while they try to get new governments elected.
But there are storm clouds on the horizon. In a “back to the future” twist, the most regressive legislation is currently being implemented in British Columbia which (predictably) first introduced forced container deposits back in 1970. BC plans to go compel industry “stewards” to pay the full cost of paper and packaging currently managed in the blue box.
“Just when it was getting to where ordinary families could buy almost an entire skid of two-litre pop bottle for only a few bucks at gas stations, the government saddles us with these perverse costs,” complains Wonk.
Lobbyists are reportedly pressuring BC’s government to consider alternatives, like the smart new waste-to-energy incinerators planned for the Vancouver area. But time is running out.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2009 approximately 670,000 tons of aluminum cans and two million tons of PET bottles were successfully disposed. Such impressive numbers from only a few years ago will be increasingly difficult to achieve again if the EPR whack jobs get their way.
If the IBCL can turn back this interference with container landfilling, the sky could be (literally) the limit. Here’s raising a glass (or plastic bottle) to that!
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org