While many beverage companies agree with environmentalists that the recycling rate remains stubbornly too low in the United States, they disagree about the best way to go about boosting it.
For instance, industry groups like the American Beverage Association (ABA) and the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), say they are in favor of more curbside recycling and away-from-home collection programs. But they continue to oppose bottle deposit laws.
As of last count, about 40 percent of beverage aluminum, glass and PET packages are being recovered in the U.S., says Kate Krebs, the ABA’s senior environmental policy advisor. “But there’s still more that we want to get,” she says. “What the beverage companies have done is make a commitment to recycling policy that they believe is the right approach.” This, she says, includes making sure that the packaging is 100 percent recyclable; support programs to make recycling easier for consumers and a communication program to support efforts to motivate more consumers to recycle.
“Recycling is integrated into all of our companies’ business models,” Krebs adds. “They want recycling to be successful. They want the containers back.”
But Krebs says the industry is united in its opposition to bottle deposit laws. One vocal opponent is the bottled water industry. Chris Hogan, a spokesperson for the IBWA, says, “It’s not a positive incentive for a lot of the states that are looking into it. Bottle bills are essentially little more than a hidden tax that negatively impacts consumers, and especially people who can least afford it. It increases the cost of their grocery bills. We just feel it is not the right way to administer a program that is supposed to be designed to encourage recycling.”
Disagreement aside, there is some good news in the latest statistics from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI). They show that two of the packaging materials—PET and glass—actually are approaching their all-time-high recycling rates in the United States. For PET, that high was reached in 1995 at around 32 percent. The latest stats, from 2010, showed it was up around 29 percent. This is up from a low of around 20 percent in 2003. The other good news is for glass, which reached about 33 percent in 2010, this is about tied or even just surpassing its previous all-time high reached in 1992.
Aluminum cans didn’t fare as well. That packaging material’s recycling rate was 50 percent in 2010, quite a bit below its 1992 high of about 65 percent.
Susan Collins, executive director of CRI, blames the decline in can recycling partly on the shift to more use of PET. “That affects your weighted average because you’re going from a material with a higher recycling rate into a material with a lower recycling rate,” she says.
The other good news is that the percentage of the U.S. population served by curbside recycling programs started rising again in 2010 after being stagnant since 2007. In 2010, it stood at around 62 percent, up from 61 percent in 2009.
But Collins says there is one big hole in these stats: The curbside numbers only survey single-family homes and do not count about 30 percent of the U.S. population who live in multi-family dwellings.
Nevertheless, all agree that these recycling rates, though some are indeed improving, remain just too low. “We can do much better,” says Collins. “These numbers are very disappointing compared to what they’re able to do in Canada and in Europe where they have much more widespread use of deposit programs. In 2006, our nationwide recycling rate in the U.S. was 35 percent and it would literally be double that if we had a nationwide deposit program. So there’s so much upside potential.”
One company that is doing its share to boost recycling is Honest Tea. On April 30, Honet Tea held its first Great Recycle event in Times Square. The company set up a 30-foot-tall recycling bin and attempted to crowd-source recycle more than 45,000 plastic, glass and aluminum beverage containers in 10 hours. The plastic bottles collected were to be recycled into gardening supplies including shovels, watering cans and plastic lumber which will be used to build and cultivate an urban garden for PS 102, an elementary school in Harlem.
Seth Goldman, Honest Tea’s co-founder and TeaEO, says the first Great Recycle was such a huge success that the company will hold others in Seattle, Wash. and Rochester, N.Y., this month. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive support and engagement,” says Goldman. “There are retailers that want to be involved with us. We are also expecting to expand the effort. Our partners at Coca-Cola are interested in getting involved in the effort, too.”
Goldman says his marketing team came up with the idea for the Great Recycle. “It’s to elevate awareness about recycling and to do what we can to help make it more a part of everyday behavior. The recycling rate numbers I see are around 30 percent. And to be honest with you, the whole system doesn’t make sense if we can’t get above 30 percent because the energy we expend to put the trucks on the road, to do the collection, to melt down the bottles and all, it’s just not enough throughput. But if you can take that same infrastructure and have 40 percent recycling, then all of a sudden you’re starting to realize the efficiencies.”
Cartons are another package that is seeing increased recycling rates. Tetra Pak says about 22 percent of its cartons were recycled globally in 2011. And by 2020, its goal is to double that rate.
What’s more, the company says today’s story of environmental innovation goes even beyond recycling. Says Mario Abreu, the company’s director of forestry & recycling, “We must look upstream to the sustainability and renewability of the raw materials that go into the production of the package, not only what happens at end of life.” Among Tetra Pak’s goals is to develop a fully renewable carton package and increase the supply of Forest Stewardship Council-certified paperboard used in its products to 100 percent.