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October 2003

Plastic Bottle Waste Tripled Since 1995

Container Recycling Institute Charges Big Bottle Companies with Acting Against Beneficial Legislation

Washington, DC— The Container Recycling Institute, a non-profit environmental group that studies container sales and recycling trends, has called on Coke, Pepsi and other beverage makers to halt attacks on laws that could reverse a trend of increasing plastic bottle waste. “Coke, Pepsi and all those who are profiting from the sale of beverages in plastic bottles, must accept responsibility for the mounting quantities of bottle waste,” said Pat Franklin, the Container Recycling Institute’s executive director.  “They could start by halting their thirty-year war against bottle bills.”

Deposit laws, or “bottle bills,” place deposits ranging from 2.5 to 10 cents on beverage cans and bottles.  Deposit systems have achieved recycling rates over 70% in 10 U.S. states.

CRI’s announcement comes on the heels of a new industry report showing a decline in the PET plastic bottle recycling rate in the United States from 22.1% in 2001 to 19.9% in 2002.  This recycling rate is exactly half the rate achieved in 1995 (39.7%), and represents the seventh consecutive year of decline. In absolute terms, PET bottle recycling declined from 834 million pounds in 2001 to 797 million pounds in 2002.

The report, released this month by the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), also announced a 6% increase in resin sales, due primarily to the continued growth in single-serving, non-carbonated beverages. NAPCOR is the trade association representing resin producers, PET recyclers, beverage brand owners including Coke and Pepsi, and companies that manufacture or purchase PET bottles, including Proctor and Gamble.

According to CRI, what NAPCOR does not stress in its report is that plastic bottle waste is increasing at an alarming rate.  “Wasting is the flip side of recycling,” said CRI research director Jenny Gitlitz.  “While PET sales are going through the roof and recycling volumes stagnate, the quantity of plastic bottles being littered, landfilled, or incinerated is climbing.”  Gitlitz said the 3.2 billion pounds of PET bottles wasted in 2002 was almost three times the amount wasted in 1995.

“Another way of looking at it,” said Franklin, “is that for every ton of plastic bottles recycled, another four tons are being wasted.”

According to Franklin, the PET beverage bottle has been very profitable for Coke and Pepsi, who own the bottled water brands Dasani and Aquafina, respectively.   Non-carbonated bottled water is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. beverage market.  

CRI and NAPCOR agree that an “immediate consumption” trend is partly to blame for declining recycling rates. Bottled water and other beverages are increasingly consumed away from home, and away from the convenience of residential curbside recycling bins.

The groups disagree on how to address the problem.  “The two beverage giants have given lip service to recycling, said CRI’s Pat Franklin.  “Their Pete’s Big Bins and recycling programs at stadium events are token measures, and their support of taxpayer-funded curbside recycling programs is a way to pass the buck to cities and towns.  These companies have failed to take sufficient steps to ensure that PET recycling keeps pace with skyrocketing sales.  On the contrary, from Hawaii to New York, they are lobbying against bottle bill legislation, despite its proven success at recovering beverage containers.”

Franklin concedes that Coke has committed to a goal of using 10% recycled content in its plastic bottles by the end of this year.  “It’s a baby step, said Franklin, “but it’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately,” she said, “this positive move is overshadowed by their efforts to repeal existing deposit laws and prevent new ones.”  

According to CRI, states that have a refundable deposit on beverage containers recycle plastic bottles at two to four times the rate of non-deposit states.   “The beverage and grocery industries do a disservice to their customers and shareholders by denying the proven success of bottle bills and allocating company profits to defeat or repeal container deposit legislation,” Franklin concluded.

Gitlitz cited the environmental damages that result from this plastic bottle waste. “Had the 3.2 billion pounds of  PET bottles wasted in 2002 been recycled,” she said, “an estimated 6.2 million barrels of crude oil equivalent could have been saved, and over a million tons of greenhouse gas emissions could have been avoided.”

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