Bev­er­age firms push for re­cy­cling

Com­pa­nies in­vest $100M to get bot­tles out of the trash

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By Dee-Ann Durbin

Ev­ery year, an es­ti­mated 100 bil­lion plas­tic bot­tles are pro­duced in the U.S., the bulk of which come from three of Amer­ica’s big­gest bev­er­age com­pa­nies: Co­caCola, Pepsi and Keurig Dr Pep­per.

The prob­lem? Only onethird of those bot­tles get re­cy­cled; the rest end up in the trash.

That bleak trend has per­sisted for more than a decade be­cause of spotty col­lec­tion, out­dated pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties and other is­sues, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Bev­er­age As­so­ci­a­tion.

Now, Coca-Cola Co., Pep­siCo and Keurig Dr Pep­per are try­ing to change that by in­vest­ing $100 mil­lion to im­prove re­cy­cling col­lec­tion and pro­cess­ing. They also plan to come out with new pack­ag­ing next year re­mind­ing con­sumers to re­cy­cle.

The Amer­i­can Bev­er­age As­so­ci­a­tion is co­or­di­nat­ing the in­vest­ment, which will be dis­trib­uted through The Re­cy­cling Part­ner­ship, a Vir­ginia-based non­profit that works with lo­cal gov­ern­ments to im­prove re­cy­cling rates, and Closed Loop Part­ners, a New York firm that in­vests in re­cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties and new re­search.

Both The Re­cy­cling Part­ner­ship and Closed Loop Part­ners say the scale of the in­vest­ment is un­prece­dented — and sorely needed. U.S. re­cy­cling is a hodge­podge, with 20,000 lo­cal gov­ern­ments de­cid­ing how best to pro­vide the ser­vice. Only 53% of U.S. house­holds have curb­side re­cy­cling. Six per­cent have no re­cy­cling op­tions at all.

China’s de­ci­sion last year to cut back dras­ti­cally on the re­cy­cling it ac­cepts from the U.S. also put a spot­light on the prob­lem.

“The U.S. sys­tem is so des­per­ate,” said Keefe Har­ri­son, the CEO of The Re­cy­cling Part­ner­ship.

Kather­ine Lu­gar, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Amer­i­can Bev­er­age As­so­ci­a­tion, said that’s a source of frus­tra­tion for both soda drinkers and cor­po­ra­tions.

“Con­sumers in many cases like the con­ve­nience of our plas­tic bot­tles, but they are right­fully frus­trated when they see a bot­tle on the beach or in a trash can,” Lu­gar said. “It’s clear that our re­cy­cling sys­tem needs big im­prove­ments, so con­sumers know their ef­forts are go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence.”

Closed Loop will in­vest in things like ro­bot sorters, which make re­cy­cling cen­ters more ef­fi­cient and prof­itable. Through match­ing grants, mu­nic­i­pal funds and pri­vate in­vestors, the fund says it can triple the bev­er­age com­pa­nies’ in­vest­ment to around $400 mil­lion.

Right now, only around 6% of U.S. bot­tles are made from re­cy­cled plas­tic, ac­cord­ing to The Re­cy­cling Part­ner­ship. In some re­gions of the coun­try, that num­ber is as high as 20%.

Coke has pledged that half its bot­tles will be made from re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als by 2030. Pepsi wants 33% of its bev­er­age bot­tles to be made from re­cy­cled ma­te­rial by 2025; Keurig Dr Pep­per wants them in 30% of its pack­ag­ing by 2025.

Reach­ing those tar­gets will be dif­fi­cult. Wood Macken­zie, a con­sult­ing firm for the oil and gas in­dus­try, es­ti­mates plas­tic bot­tle col­lec­tion rates would have to rise 38% by 2025 and 78% by 2030 to meet them.

But com­pa­nies may have no choice. Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers re­cently passed leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing 50% re­cy­cled con­tent in bot­tles by 2030. Gov. Gavin New­som ve­toed the bill, but only be­cause it let man­u­fac­tur­ers seek waivers.

Soda com­pa­nies have made re­cy­cling prom­ises be­fore. In the early 1990s, Pepsi promised to phase out vir­gin plas­tic in its bot­tles by 1994. It never hap­pened. In 2007, Coke in­vested $60 mil­lion in a bot­tle re­cy­cling plant. The plant closed in 2014.

The com­pa­nies have also ve­he­mently fought bot­tle de­posit pro­grams, which have in­creased re­cy­cling rates in the 10 states that have them. The pro­grams re­quire con­sumers to pay ex­tra for drinks and get the de­posit back when they re­turn the bot­tles to the store.

Lu­gar said her as­so­ci­a­tion wants to help de­velop poli­cies to get more re­cy­clables back, but thinks cur­rent bot­tle laws bur­den the con­sumer.

Some en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the com­pa­nies should move be­yond plas­tic al­to­gether and adopt new de­liv­ery sys­tems, like ma­chines that re­fill re­us­able con­tain­ers.

“Putting the onus on peo­ple to just re­cy­cle more, rather than the com­pa­nies re­duc­ing their throw­away plas­tic, is cow­ardly,” said Gra­ham Forbes, the global plas­tic projects leader for Green­peace USA. “If these com­pa­nies were se­ri­ous about ad­dress­ing the plas­tic pol­lu­tion cri­sis, they would stop mak­ing so much plas­tic and shift to­ward sys­tems of re­use.”

The three bev­er­age com­pa­nies are look­ing at new ways to sell drinks. Coke is test­ing Dasani wa­ter re­fill sta­tions on col­lege cam­puses. Pepsi bought So­daStream last year so con­sumers can make fizzy drinks with home ma­chines. Keurig Dr Pep­per has part­nered with LifeFuels, the maker of a smart wa­ter bot­tle.

Brid­get Croke, vice pres­i­dent of ex­ter­nal af­fairs for Closed Loop Part­ners, said the world does need to re­duce sin­gle-use plas­tics. But the U.S. also needs to build a sys­tem to get all the value it can out of plas­tic.

“It’s go­ing to take ev­ery tool that we have to solve this chal­lenge,” she said.

FRAN­CIS GARDLER/AP

The three big­gest U.S. bev­er­age com­pa­nies have pledged to use more re­cy­cled ma­te­rial in their bot­tles. Only a third of the con­tain­ers are re­cy­cled yearly.

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