A rigid plastic refillable bottle is attached with a carabiner clip to my laptop shoulder bag. I use it to carry water. We’ve been told for years that we should drink more water, and I refill and consume mine often (though — like many people — not as much as I should). My increased water consumption is part of a major positive health trend, but my container-type is an act of rebellion against an enormous negative packaging problem.
Years ago, the major soft-drink companies realized their successful carbonated beverage products had literally peaked in filling the possible “stomach share” (their term) of North American tummies. They shrewdly diversified into juices, sports drinks and, most importantly, water. As soda pop sales plateaued, water sold in PET plastic single-serve containers rose. (According to Beverage Digest carbonated soft drinks slumped 5.9 per cent in the first half of this year while bottled water rose 11 per cent.)
Of course, the environmental economics of shipping and selling heavy crates of bottled water to consumers are appalling compared to tap water which is a hundred-fold cheaper and usually of better quality. The soft-drink companies’ success in convincing us to buy water (often just filtered tap water) in single-serve containers is one of the greatest cons in modern history, analogous to selling us filtered air (which for all I know may be next).
But it’s the fate of the used beverage containers that concerns us here, and anyone interested in recycling needs to get up to speed on some fascinating recent developments as the major soft-drink companies respond to criticism that the bottles are flooding landfills instead of being recycled. Indeed, some kind of voluntary product stewardship appears to be in the offing.
The data around soft drinks always makes my head spin. The best info comes from the United States, but is still relevant to Canada. In 2005, American consumers spent more than $270 billion (yes, that’s billion with a “b”) for the 36 billion gallons of fountain and packaged beverages they consumed, roughly equal to what they spent on gasoline! And beverage container packaging is a $17 billion-a-year business in U.S.
Bottled water has a 17 per cent share of this giant market, and is growing in double digits. The problem is that, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Container Recycling Institute (CRI), most of the plastic bottles are not being recycled. In fact, last year an estimated 138 billion beverage bottles and cans (about 460 per capita) ended up in landfills, incinerators and as litter.
In response to growing criticism of this (and to protect their lucrative bottled water segment), the soft-drink companies are starting to take action.
Coca-Cola Co. controls about a third of the $106 billion-a-year U.S. nonalcoholic ready-to-drink portion of the beverage business, and has announced two initiatives to begin taking responsibility for its wasteful packaging made from non-renewable petrochemicals.
The first is the creation of Coca-Cola Recycling LLC, which will focus on recovering and recycling packaging materials used in North America — including PET plastic, aluminum, cardboard and plastic film — within the Coca-Cola system. The plan includes development of an effective collection program for Coca-Cola Enterprise’s roughly 420 bottling plants in North America. On step includes a potential backhaul arrangement that would allow delivery vehicles to backhaul containers, packaging and other recyclable material generated at the bottling plants. (This will no doubt amuse proponents of refillable containers — which the soft-drink companies hate — since reverse-distribution systems are a cornerstone of refilling.)
The second initiative announced by Coca-Cola is that it will spend $60 million on a behemoth 45,000-tonne food-grade PET recycling plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina next year. The plant will process nearly two billion 20-ounce bottles annually, and potentially raise its recycling rate to 30 per cent by 2010 from the current 10 percent. The 2010 target amounts to 100 million pounds of recycled PET. The plant is a joint venture with Spartanburg-based United Resource Recovery Corp.
The company’s investment aims to boost PET recycling rates in the U.S. that have fallen to 23 percent from almost 39 percent in 1994. Other recyclers, already in competition with Asian markets, believe Coke’s new recycling plant further curtail feedstock supplies and drive up prices.
Soft-drink companies hate deposit-refund schemes almost as much as they loathe refillable-bottle containers, despite the fact that states and provinces with deposits (so-called “bottled bill” jurisdictions) achieve dramatically higher container diversion rates. So it’s interesting that Coca-Cola has pledged financial support to a program that is a deposit-refund scheme in everything but name. Coke has invested more than $2 million in Philadelphia-based RecycleBank LLC to help it expand nationwide from its current area in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. RecycleBank gives consumers coupons in exchange for their throwaways.
So, ironically, the soft-drink companies’ foray into water appears to be pushing them into product stewardship for their packaging, including increased recycled content, reverse distribution systems, and a form of deposit-refund for containers. One day they might even re-embrace environmentally superior beverage-container refilling.
In the meantime, I’ll watch from the sidelines with my little refillable bottle, and I suggest you do the same.
The Container Recycling Institute’s report “Water, Water Everywhere: The growth of non-carbonated beverages in the United States” (February 2007) is available for download under the Posted Documents button on our homepage atwww.solidwastemag.com
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org