The untapped power of bottle repositories could save us from plastic bottle purgatory

The untapped power of bottle repositories could save us from plastic bottle purgatory

That’s why, while the big drinks companies would like us to believe that waste is a matter of personal responsibility, it’s actually a systemic failure of their own manufacturing – and we should demand that they take more responsibility to solve it.

Some 480 billion plastic bottles are sold worldwide each year, according to Euromonitor International, a market research firm. In the United States, less than a third of these bottles are recycled, meaning most end up in landfills, burned in incinerators or littering our roads and oceans.

As one of the largest beverage companies in the world, Coca-Cola is admirably committed to recovering as many bottles and cans globally as it sells by 2030. For now, however , Coca-Cola still imposes much of the expense and hassle of recycling its bottles on consumers and local governments, who rely on inefficient and costly curbside collection. But there is an easier, proven and much more effective way to recover bottles and reduce the production of climate-damaging virgin plastics: a deposit system.

Less than a century ago, Americans paid a 2-cent bond on every bottle of 5-cent glass soda, a retail ransom that ensured each bottle was returned and reused – about two dozen times on average. . Today, deposit systems are still incredibly effective at retrieving cans, bottles, and other containers. According to the Container Recycling Institute, returnable plastic bottles are recycled at more than triple the rate of non-returnable bottles.

A 2020 study by Keep America Beautiful found that states with deposit laws had about half as many bottles and cans littering the floor as those without. But bottle deposit laws typically cost beverage companies pennies per drink in handling fees. Perhaps that’s why, in the same report, Keep America Beautiful — long funded as a conscience cleanser by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and others — makes no mention of these laws in prescribing solutions to waste. Instead, he places that burden on individuals and municipalities, recommending anti-litter education, more curbside recycling, and the addition of receptacles in public spaces. All valid ideas, but none likely to cut waste in half.

“It’s been happening for decades,” says Kirstie Pecci, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “They want you and me to do better to solve this problem, when in reality we already have a great system to solve the problem that would cost them money, and they just don’t want to do it.”

Massachusetts has a 40-year-old container deposit law that applies to soft drinks, beer and malt beverages, but an updated bottle bill now awaits passage in Beacon Hill. The expansion would add other drinks to the current system – including bottled water, sports drinks and “nips”, the miniature liquor bottles – as well as an increase in the deposit to 10 cents, or double the reimbursement in place since 1982.

Both steps are long overdue. Bottled water eclipsed soda in 2016 as the top-selling beverage in the United States. And a 5-cent deposit just isn’t the motivation anymore than it was 40 years ago, when a nickel was worth the equivalent of 15 cents today.

At the time, no one anticipated the dominance of the bottled water market, says one of the bill’s sponsors, Senator Cynthia Creem. “So only 42% of beverages sold in Massachusetts are even included in the [current] bottle bill,” she says. And when Oregon increased its deposit to 10 cents in 2017, Creem notes, “reimbursement rates skyrocketed from 64% to 90%.”

The updated bill would help recover an additional 3.1 billion containers each year in Massachusetts, CRI estimates. Because recycling is much less carbon-intensive than manufacturing virgin materials, it would mean taking more than 40,000 cars off the road, according to CRI President Susan V. Collins. But a similar rise in the bottle bill was on the ballot in 2014, and although it proved popular in early polls, the drinks industry crushed that support, spending six times as much money as defenders to deliver often misleading advertisements.

Massachusetts is also expected to pass H.878, an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) bill similar to what Maine passed last year (the first US state to do so). This law obliges large manufacturers to assume a certain financial responsibility for the recycling of their products and packaging. In addition to easing some of the heavy burden that waste and recycling management places on cities and taxpayers, EPR laws are incentivizing companies to invest in smarter, more sustainable packaging.

Of course, recycling alone is not going to save us from climate change. We need a just and comprehensive transition away from fossil fuels across our economy – starting yesterday. But updating our bottle bill is the least we can do – an easy win based on proven successes – and Extended Producer Responsibility legislation is a good next step.

Companies such as Coca-Cola used to proudly engrave their logos on reusable glass bottles, in part because they wanted to salvage those containers. It’s time for the companies producing the plastic on our beaches and roads to show that kind of property on their products again.


Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to Globe Magazine. Send your comments to magazine@globe.com.


Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to Globe Magazine. Send your comments to magazine@globe.com.

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