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Plant Bottles: Band-aid or Cure for Recycled PET Short Supply in the US?

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As convenience gains importance in an accelerating economy, plastic use is only expected to continue. For this reason, the healthy growth of bottled water in the US has resulted in increased demand for plastic bottles. 2017 achieved a growth rate of 2% in volume terms for PET bottles.

Source: Euromonitor International 

A comparison between PET and other beverage pack types illustrates the dominance plastic has over the packaging industry. In an afterthought of this exciting period for packaging companies, consumers are reacting with increasing concern to a growing waste problem. Plastic, as it takes roughly 400 years to degrade and is one of the least recycled materials, has recently been subject to a variety of negative press. As a result, companies are noting the environmentally-conscious consumer base and responding accordingly. One method for dealing with this mounting issue has been the introduction of bottles manufactured using bio-based feedstocks that are 100% renewably sourced. Another is a greater investment in recycled plastic.

The Case for rPET

Coca Cola, a global lead on soft drinks sustainability within the beverage industry, announced in 2016 to double their use of recycled PET (rPET) to 50% by 2020 in Western Europe. It’s an important step forward in curbing plastic waste which in 2017 has grown to over 6.3 billion metric tonnes littered across landfills and the ocean. As Europe continues to advance in their sustainability efforts, America has not only stagnated, but has decreased their PET post-consumer recycling rate. In 2016, the US is estimated to have produced 50 million bottles, 30% of which is recycled at a decelerating rate historically over the last few years.

It appears that Europe has had the upper hand with recycling. With a 59% PET recycling rate, one is prompted to wonder, what are they doing that the US isn’t?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a complicated issue. One of America’s major issues in recycling is the availability of curb-side programs. Because these programs are regulated at the municipal level, not the state or federal level, it’s easy for recycling to become too expensive to be worthwhile, either on the collector or the municipal side. Less than half of all cities in the US have a stable curb-side recycling program. These collectors receive payment for every ton of recycled plastic gathered, and the quantity they collect has been consistently declining since 2014 because the supply just isn’t there and landfill fees are relatively low. The reason is because of the lack of consumer accessibility across the country to recycling bins due to poor local infrastructure that has proven ineffective at handling the changes in the country’s waste stream. Compounding on this supply issue, the price of plastic is strongly tied to oil prices, a major ingredient in the production of plastic. We’ve been in a price slump for the last 4 years. The result of these suppressed prices is an increased favorability towards virgin plastic use. The inexpensiveness of virgin plastic coupled with a lower supply of rPET (and therefore a higher relative cost to rPET) assures that beverage companies will not be choosing recycled plastic as their preferred packaging material, at least until oil prices surge, we change our recollection process or consumers put more pressure on corporations to find sustainable alternatives.

An Alternative Measure

So will Coca-Cola introduce a similar optimistic goal in the US regarding rPET? Maybe, but this progress is highly dependent on the supply-side issues continuing to plague U.S. cities; this is an infrastructural issue that will be difficult to remedy. It seems that the company is directing their resources now towards their plant-based bottle, which is made using sugarcane waste with a goal to commercially introduce 100% plant-based bottles. This bottle has been distributed in North America since 2009, and it already makes up 30% of Coca-Cola’s packaging volume in North America. Pepsi reciprocated soon after with their own plant-based bottle. While this was seen as a win for the major beverage companies, looking to increase their sustainability footprint, there have been mixed reactions from consumers and organizations alike. The energy emissions of producing the bottle has been called into question as well as the potential for confusion in waste sorting, with the variety of different constructions of plant-based bottles coming on to the market. As the implications of this packaging material are debated, it is difficult to determine whether these plant bottles will take center stage in the US market. However, there is adequate evidence that consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of their consumption and with greater investment in alternative packaging innovation, bio-based plastics will continue to be a future sustainable option.

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