Beverage container recycling struggles to gain ground

Beverage container recycling struggles to gain ground

By Bobby Elliott, Resource Recycling

Nov. 7, 2013

A new study on beverage container recycling in the U.S. indicates sales of beverage containers continued to ascend between 2000 and 2010, but recycling rates barely budged during the decade.

The solution? A national deposit program, says the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), which prepared the report and cited the effectiveness of 11 statewide programs (this includes Delaware, which no longer has a redemption program, but did in 2010) in aiding otherwise disappointing recycling figures.

Released late last week, "Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000 – 2010)" states that in 2010 our "national wasting rate" reached 63.1 percent. According to the study, approximately 153 billion of the 243 billion beverage containers sold during the year were either "landfilled, littered or incinerated." Accordingly, the recycling rate in in 2010 was 36.9 percent, up from the 2000 rate of roughly 33 percent.

Those figures represent both traditional and non-traditional containers. Non-traditional containers are defined by CRI as including gable-top cartons, aseptic drink boxes and foil pouches. Traditional containers include refillable and one-way glass bottles, PET and HDPE plastic bottles, and steel and aluminum cans

The recycling rate of traditional containers was 39.6 percent in 2010, increasing less than one percentage point from the 2000 rate.

While a CRI press release infers that between 2000 and 2010 "the rate at which we recycled the empty containers declined," it is worth noting that the national recycling rate declined only when compared with recycling rates during the 1990s. During that decade, container recycling rates were consistently higher than current levels and hit an all-time high of roughly 54 percent in 1992. Between 2000 and 2010, recycling rates, though leaving much to be desired, increased incrementally.

As the study points out, relatively unchanged recycling behavior over the period coincided, somewhat paradoxically, with increased access to curbside recycling programs championed by the beverage industry and a vigorous nationwide campaign to increase recycling awareness. Recycling rates for the containers, after inching above the 50 percent mark in the early 1990s, dropped between 1995 and 2004, while a period of slight growth occurred between 2005 and 2010.

According to the report, several obstacles have stood in the way of increasing recycling sufficiently, including a major industry switch from aluminum cans to PET containers, which have a significantly lower recycling rate. The study also points to the rise of out-of-home consumption and the lack of substantial legislation as major hindrances to upping recycling activity.

"Recycling rates have stagnated in large part due to a dramatic increase in consumption of these beverages, especially at businesses and in public spaces where recycling bins are scarce," CRI president Susan Collins said in the press release. "Another key factor in the decline in recycling rates is the unwillingness of state legislatures to enact effective recycling policies, especially new or expanded container deposit laws."

On an economic level, the scrap value of beverage containers entering the waste stream in 2010 was an estimated $3.8 billion. Just $1.6 billion worth of the material was recycled – about 42.1 percent of the possible value of the scrap material.

Sales of traditional bottles and cans grew by 22 percent between 2000 and 2010 "partly due to U.S. population growth of 9.6 percent during the period," the study states. Americans consumed a whopping 784 beverage containers per person in 2010, easily surpassing 2000's average of 629 beverage containers per capita. Sales of plastic bottles led the charge, with sales of those products increasing from 8.4 billion units sold in 2000 to 42.6 billion in 2010.

According to the study, container recycling during the decade did see a positive impact from the 11 deposit programs in place by the end of 2010. Those programs reported recycling rates for containers covered under law of 66 to 96 percent, outperforming the rest of the country's rate (roughly 30 percent). In addition, deposit program states accounted for 46 percent of all recycling in 2010, despite accounting for just 28 percent of the U.S. population.

Arguing that "beverage container recycling must dramatically increase across the country," the study proposes a national deposit program modeled after the statewide programs. The study notes that "if a very modest 5-cent deposit were placed on all carbonated and non-carbonated beverages throughout the U.S., a 75 percent recycling rate would be achieved across the board."

"Several states are interested in introducing legislation for a container deposit system," Collins told Resource Recycling. "Of course, a national container deposit system would have superior environmental benefits, and would also create a more uniform system for consumers."

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