An empty bottle that I display on my desk has become a venerated object. It’s a refillable plastic water container our editor Connie Vitello brought back for me from a research trip to Holland last year.
The 1.5-litre bottle is made of clear PET plastic and from a distance looks similar to those found in North America. But close inspection reveals the plastic walls are thicker and firmer, and are lightly scuffed. The main body sits in a dark rigid-plastic base, and the screw collar is made of a tough white resin. The “SPA” brand label — which features an amusing frosty-looking fellow riding atop a spout of water — is a plastic film tightly bound onto the container, without adhesive.
It’s not a container you’d see in North America and the reasons why are thought provoking. It’s from a materials-handling system that’s strangely alien to us; the bottle has probably withstood dozens of round-trips between stores, homes and refilling plants. I bet the rinsing equipment and contaminant-detection “sniffer” technology of the European plants where the no human hands need touch the container would astonish us and look nothing like the low-tech operations of 1950s America.
There’s a prescient message in this bottle. Whenever North American soft-drink industry lobbyists argue against refillables here, they invariably produce an enormous, clunky glass pop bottle from the 1970s and remind their audience of terrible “exploding bottle” incidents back then. They pretend that refillable PET bottles like the one on my desk just don’t exist. That’s too bad, because in the face of increasingly competitive global markets foreign experiments in packaging redesign, consumer behavior and extended producer responsibility deserve our attention.
Fresh insights into this topic may be found in a study released in April 2002 entitled Reduce, Reuse, Refill! by the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The authors describe and compare various life-cycle analyses of refillables versus single-use containers that are recycled into low-value materials (the two-thirds that are not recycled end up in landfills). The authors conclude that, with a few qualifications, both the environmental and the economic performance of refillables are higher; waste management costs are lower, and even the cost per unit of beverages to consumers is less. In Denmark, for instance, material and system costs for 500-ml refillable PET bottles are almost 15 times cheaper than their one-way counterparts. Refillables have eliminated an estimated 390,000 tonnes of Danish waste annually. The results are similar for Finland, a waste diversion leader.
I won’t state categorically that things are better in Europe, but in light of our glamorous Governor General and her husband’s recent tour of the circumpolar countries to promote common interests, we should acknowledge that perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our Scandinavian cousins. (Note that Sweden has abandoned blue box recycling.) They use such items as state-of-the-art reverse-vending machines that take back containers and deliver refunds while occupying minimal valuable retail floor space. Industry has done a brilliant job in North America of diverting our attention from these innovations and in framing the debate so municipalities think almost exclusively in terms of how to recycle more through curbside programs, find markets for the mountains of low-value material collected, and keep the cost a taxpayer responsibility versus industry and consumers. When the programs go into the red, operators inevitably look for subsidies. (This is Canada, after all.)
The Container Recycling Institute says that over half the 100 billion cans sold in the United States in 2002 were not recycled and last year’s 48 per cent aluminum can recycling rate was the lowest in 16 years. PET recycling is down to 20 per cent (from 40 per cent in 1995) according to NAPCOR. Closer to home, four million PET bottles went to landfill after the SARS Rolling Stones concert in Toronto. States and provinces with deposit-return systems have the best recovery rates (often in excess of 90 per cent), but it’s still just for recycling. Interestingly, it’s often overlooked that Prince Edward Island has held out and still bans non-refillables. Beer is another hold out; about 70 per cent of all beer sold in Canada is in refillable bottles. In Ontario that’s 1.6 billion units. (Imagine the waste problem collecting and recycling those if they were non-refillables!) Ontario’s The Beer Store retail chain reduced its waste disposal costs from a peak of $1.5-million in 1992 to just $129,000 in 1994.
It’s not all bad news. I recently attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Guelph’s new Waste Resource Innovation Centre. (See news item, page 6.) Guelph is switching to a three-stream bag-based system that will soon elevate the city’s diversion rate from 43 per cent to perhaps double that. Such entrepreneurialism is now part of a Canada-wide phenomenon in which towns and cities have become testing grounds for innovative waste diversion strategies, the best of which will one day be adopted across the board.
But as ultra-cheap energy supplies decline in the future, and as Canada competes globally while trying to comply with various international accords, environmental professionals will have to look beyond merely recycling and consider strategies that keep certain materials out of the waste stream entirely.
That’s why I placed that Dutch refillable water bottle on my desk, and not in the recycling bin. It’s a subtle reminder of what’s yet to come.
Not a container you’d ever see in North America.