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June 2006

Coca-Cola catalyst for consideration of Canadian recycling

When the Coca-Cola Bottling Company challenged the deposit system of Canada’s recycling program for beverage containers, they shed light on recycling in general, galvanized public opinion, and may have instigated short-term and long-term changes in public policy.

Only soft drinks and beer are required by law to have a deposit on them ($0.05 and $0.10 respectively). In 2002, Coca-Cola and the Pepsi Bottling Group voluntarily agreed to put a deposit on some of their other bottled products.

Recently, Coca-Cola stated that it was going to withdraw from the voluntary system, in favor of ‘blue box’ and curbside programs. The issue made headlines and Coke withdrew its proposal.

Robert Lemieux, the president/director general of RECYC-QUEBEC, the provincial body that oversees a variety of recycling programs, supports the current voluntary arrangement.

“They wanted to use the blue box and the deposit and return system,” he said. “The explanation was to make it easier for consumers, but consumers are used to the deposit and return system because it has been in place in Quebec since 1984. We wanted them to keep the present system alive and help it grow.

“The deposit and return system, for the time being, is a lot more efficient than the blue box,” he added. “In due time I hope that the blue box will be as efficient, and then maybe we will question the necessity of deposit and return system.”

Christina Smith, director of government and industry relations for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company Canada, explained why her firm favors curbside recycling for the beverage containers in question, pointing out that Quebec’s legislative assembly passed a bill in March 2005 that mandates industry to pay 50 percent of municipal curbside recycling programs. This is already the case in the neighboring province of Ontario.

“Because we now pay into the system in Quebec,” said Smith, “we decided to remove the voluntary deposit on some of our containers.”

The payments by individual companies are based on the weight of packaging and the value of the material.

“In Quebec curbside recycling is fairly new, but it reaches every household,” said Smith. “We think it is the best way to capture the most beverage containers that are not under the deposit system.”

However, following a February 6 meeting with the Minister for the Environment, Coca-Cola will maintain the voluntary system “in order for the government, industry and retailers to find an equitable system and a long-term solution for this.”

Quebec is considering implementing a fee for plastic water bottles, wine bottles and other beverage containers.

“It would be a government decision,” said Lemieux, “but it’s been mentioned a few times. We are discussing it with the water industry, juice industry and so on to see if they can do it on a voluntary basis and inviting citizens to put their containers in blue boxes. If we had more success with that, if we could increase the rate of return on a voluntary basis without some deposit and return system, we could go on that track.”

Lemieux stresses that industry has to come up with viable proposals this year – “with good objectives and a good means to do it. We expect industry to move rapidly this year. If we are not satisfied, the government will have to make a decision.”

At playing fields and public places, many water bottles and drink containers end up in garbage bins rather than recycling containers.

“That is where we want industry to act, to make recycling available to everybody and soon – places where we can put those containers and then have system to collect them and bring them to the right place,” said Lemieux. “This is the same problem we had in 1984 and years prior.”

Smith shares Lemieux’s concerns about recycling at public places.

“We spent a considerable amount of effort trying to increase the recovery rate on our soft drink containers and non-carbonated beverages,” she said. “We manage the deposit system through Boissons Gazeuses Environment (BGE) and we work with Collecte Sélective Québec to find innovative ways to try to recover more beverage containers that are not part of the deposit system.”

Coca-Cola has worked with BGE to recover containers at various public places and is part of a cross-industry group that is studying the problem and confers with government officials.

“There is still a lot of work to do in Quebec,” said Smith. “We feel the best way to do this is through public recycling systems. We need to work with the government to find solutions for public recycling. We’re working on some pilot projects right, which we are going to submit to the minister of the environment. We have already submitted some very concrete proposals.”

In 2002, Quebec had a six percent recycle rate for plastic water containers.

“We are now close to 20 percent,” said Lemieux. “That would include four-liter, one-liter and smaller-sized bottles.”

While Lemieux said that the plastic industry has not set up recycling bins at public places, despite attempts by RECYC-QUEBEC encouraging them to do so, “the recycling industry is interested in that plastic. Everybody wants it now.”

He stressed the importance of having recycling bins at schools, airports and in downtown cores, particularly for smaller sized containers.

“More and more of Montreal’s festivals are working with RECYC-QUEBEC,” said Lemieux, who is pleased that the public is warming up to recycling, but also insists that funds are needed to create education and promotional campaigns. “It’s the people that made Coke change its mind. It means that more people are conscious about recycling.”

But recycling isn’t just good for the environment, it’s profitable too. There are markets for recycled materials from Quebec. Much of the glass collected is purchased by Owens Corning in Illinois and China, and aluminum cans placed in the blue box return to the marketplace as finished products in about 30 days.

The rate of return for glass wine bottles is close to 50 percent, mainly via curbside recycling. Wine in Quebec is sold at government–run outlets and grocery stores. Lemieux says these stores do not want to be responsible for deposit and return system, but adds that some of the western Canadian provinces do have bottle deposit centers.

“It does work,” he said. “If we consider it, it will be part our talks with industry. If we could increase that rate to 70 percent in the next 2 to 3 years, we wouldn’t need a deposit system. It’s in bars and restaurants where we have some work to do. Most of them do not recycle.”

For beer bottles, which are part of the deposit system, the rate of return is 97 to 98 percent.

The rate of return for aluminum cans that contain carbonated drinks, juices and other beverages is about 75 percent.

“We wish to reach 80 percent,” said Lemieux. “It’s getting tough because the deposit system is only $.05. Maybe we would have to double it to reach our goal.”

Smith points out that aluminum beverage containers are the only source of positive revenue in the blue box system.

“They not only pay for themselves,” she said, “aluminum cans pay for recycling.”

“There are a lot of different solutions and there is a lot of work that industry intends to do with through municipal and provincial governments, as well as with retailers,” she added. “We really can find innovative solutions to sustain the environment.”

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