ALEXANDRIA, Va.–Major beverage companies are seeking ways to use more recycled plastic in their packaging, according to the Wall Street Journal, but they’re facing a shortage of discarded containers from recycling programs.
Currently, less than a third of the six billion pounds of plastic most commonly used for drink bottles and food containers is recovered by U.S. recycling programs. Most of that is converted into polyester fiber for rugs and clothing or plastic sheeting. Only one-fifth—or 330 million pounds—is used to make new containers.
Big drink-and-food manufacturers will need up to five times that amount of recycled plastic to meet targets they’ve announced to satisfy consumer calls to waste less and reuse more, reports the Association of Plastic Recyclers. Coca-Cola wants to use 50% recycled plastic by 2030. By 2025, Nestlé Waters North America is aiming for 50% recycled plastic in its domestic brands, and PepsiCo wants to use 25% recycled plastic in its bottles and packaging. Most beverage companies use less than 10% recycled plastic in their packaging today.
The volume of plastic for bottles, technically known as polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, has been stagnant for years. “We have to increase recycled PET. This is unquestionably one of the biggest challenges in the U.S.,” said Simon Lowden, president of Pepsi’s snacks group.
Beverage companies pay millions of dollars annually to improve curbside recycling through groups such as the Recycling Partnership. Through a grant of $4 million from the Coca-Cola Foundation, the Recycling Partnership in Atlanta and city officials this spring deployed teams of people to city neighborhoods to check recycling bins for contaminants right before collection crews arrive.
Last year, the PepsiCo Foundation pledged $10 million in a collaboration with the Recycling Partnership to raise $25 million from other companies to purchase recycling carts and underwrite education programs in areas with low participation in recycling.
But beverage companies also have worked for decades against one of the most effective recycling practices: deposit programs that pay a nickel or dime for each bottle returned. They acknowledge that deposits succeed at collecting cans and bottles for recycling but say the deposits are a tax on their drinks that give millions of dollars in unredeemed deposits each year to state governments. The programs also create logistical challenges for beverage distributors and retailers that must collect and store the empty bottles.
“We can make curbside better. That’s really where we see the future of recycling,” said William Dermody, vice president for the American Beverage Association, the soda industry’s trade association.
The 10 states that charge deposits on beer, water and soda containers have higher collection rates than states with voluntary curbside recycling programs. They collect a third of all the recycled PET collected annually in the U.S., according to the Container Recycling Institute. Those collected bottles are converted into new containers at a higher rate than plastic from curbside programs that also contain unusable materials.
“If you have a deposit system, you get fantastic collection rates,” said Leon Farahnik, chief executive of CarbonLite Industries, a Los Angeles-based processor of recycled plastic flakes used to make new bottles. In California, the deposit program recovers enough PET to make 70% of the new beverage bottles sold there annually, reports the California recycling department.
Fees for curbside recycling service have risen to counter falling prices for scrap materials caused by lower exports of old paper, cardboard and plastics to China, which tightened contamination standards for U.S. scrap exports last year. That move left many recycling companies without a buyer for their waste and created a glut in domestic scrap markets.
Higher rates have helped stabilize collection programs, but the increases could discourage municipalities from providing access to recycling to the roughly one-third of U.S. households that don’t yet have collection service, industry analysts said. That would further diminish the supply of recycled plastic for food-and-drink companies.
Water in a Can
Meanwhile, PepsiCo has announced that that it will test-market canned Aquafina water early next year as a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles, the New York Times reports. But some consumers are skeptical.
“Something like that would scare me,” said Selena James, 53, after buying a bottle of Mountain Dew at a corner deli in Brooklyn. “You see juice in a can, not water. You see water in a bottle.”
Her aversion to canned water is a challenge facing Pepsi as it tries to get consumers to embrace a new product it says will help the environment.
Stacy Taffet, the Pepsi vice president overseeing the company’s water brands, said that while many kinds of fizzy water already come in aluminum containers, drinking still water from a can would be new for many people. “Our goal is to be a little bit ahead of consumers here,” she said, “and help nudge them in the right direction.”
Public sentiment has turned against single-use plastic items, which can end up in landfills or floating in oceans. Across the world, only 9% of all the plastic ever made has been recycled, but 67% of the aluminum bought by consumers every year is reused. So far, consumers have accepted cans filled with seltzer, craft beer and wine.
While putting water in aluminum cans and recycled plastic is a step forward for the industry, the best way for consumers to protect the environment would be to give up packaged water entirely, according to Peter Gleick, the author of a book about bottled water. Pepsi is “trying to do better at things that maybe we shouldn’t be doing at all,” he said.
Many details of Pepsi’s canned water experiment remain unclear, such as the retail price and where the water would be sold. In the meantime, consumers who want an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles have other options: Boxed Water, a Michigan company that packages its water in paper containers resembling milk cartons, and a new brand, Ever & Ever, that puts water in bottle-shaped aluminum cans with screw tops.
Despite growing public awareness of environmental issues, sales of bottled water have increased in the United States in recent years, rising more than 5% in 2018, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation.