Plastic Bottle Recycling Is A Dying Dream


A New York Times Op Ed piece just had this to say about recycling plastic water bottles: "Of course, in certain circumstances bottled water is necessary. It is essential during emergencies — think Katrina — and it is certainly a better alternative when the only other drinks come loaded with calories.

What the rising use of bottled water leaves us with, however, is a huge recycling problem. Of the mountain of individual plastic water bottles created by Americans each year — including enough to hold more than seven billion gallons of water — less than one-fourth are sent to the recycling industry for a second round."

We don't agree. Emergency water bottle deliveries are the exception. Buying water bottles might be a convenience for FEMA; but, to cite this rare situation to demonstrate a broader market "need" is off point. Moreover, people will come to water trucks in an emergency if they have to - just as easily as they can to a truck full of bottles.

Several kinds of portable filtration technology are available for point of distribution treatment; and, smaller, pour-through filters can be distributed for consumer use in an emergency.

Set aside, if you will, both the emergency use issue and the potential loss of feel-good redemption from curbside recycling. Working backwards from the Time's "one-fourth", the non-recycled remainder, around 75% of all plastic water bottles sold in the US presumably goes to the dumpster and on to a landfill tip, or else ends up in the mid-ocean gyre. How many more decades are we going to try to delude ourselves that encouraging the of recycling water bottles is a practical solution?

The PET bottle supply chain knows that if developed societies somehow were able to reclaim 90% of the empty plastic water bottles, and put most of the PET back into packaging uses, it would drag down the price of virgin polymer. Retail beverage outlets know that take back and storage of plastic empties adds labor cost, takes up space, and possibly may require capital investment. So, they lobby against mandatory deposit bills - quite effectively. Do we wait another thirty years to see how many more states will enact them?

Without costly bottle grinders at the big retail establishments, especially those which sell very large volumes of water bottles, the result of wide scale mandatory collection would be trucks hauling mostly air back to regional recycling facilities - where re-grind would take place. Does this make environmental sense? It is a question that creates endless debate until a third party produces a peer reviewed life cycle study to back up a conclusion.

For right now, if you want to feel better about your hydration "footprint," fill up a nice canteen or re-usable water bottle when you leave home for work, shopping, school or whatever. And, no, we're not arguing for a ban on bottle waters or to abandon recycling programs. Just make the better choice whenever it's practical to. Fill'er up at home.

If you own a business or want to develop a green building, do your part to reinforce the better choice. Bring back the occasional water cooler and install drinking fountains in the hallways, lobbies, and public eating areas. (This should be a LEED bottom line requirement if it is not already.)

Workplace environmental coordinators might consider posting the results of tap water analysis offered for free, and by law, by your water supply company. Send it around with an explanation of why drinking tap water is the better choice.

Image credit::Eblips, Emergent Culture Metafilter, Water Bottle Glacier In The Desert

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