Beverage industry needs to tackle plastic problem immediately

bottled water
CC BY 2.0 Thad Zajdowicz

As the tide of public opinion turns against disposable plastic bottles, there needs to be some serious innovation if the industry hopes to saves face.

The beverage industry is in crisis mode. The tide of public opinion has turned rapidly against companies that use plastic bottles for water, soda, and juice. They are no longer viewed as providers of convenience, but rather as environmental villains, responsible for polluting the planet's oceans.

Market analyst Tom Vierhile writes for Just-Drinks, an online provider of news and commentary for the beverage industry. He is calling it a "Blackfish moment" for the industry, referring to the documentary film that came out in 2013 and recounted the death of a trainer caused by a captive killer whale at a Sea World in Florida. The film effectively "soured the world on keeping killer whales in captivity," which is exactly what's happening with plastic bottles.

The BBC's recent show Blue Planet II has had a huge effect. Its first episode attracted 14 million viewers, making it most watched TV show in 2017.

"It highlighted the damaging impact that single-use plastic is having on the world's oceans - including a case of a pilot whale calf which is thought to have died after consuming its mother's milk contaminated with toxic chemicals from plastic. [Narrator David] Attenborough, 91, said in the series: 'Unless the flow of plastics into the world's oceans is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come.'"

This show influenced even the Queen of England, who has pledged to rid her palaces of single-use plastics, and she's not the only one. Taiwan has set a target of 2030 to ban all single-use plastics. Tourist companies are going straw-free on the Great Barrier Reef. France has outlawed disposable plastic plates, cups, and cutlery. Members of Parliament are calling for "latte levies" (taxes on takeout cups); Glastonbury Festival says it will ban all plastic bottles on site; and the BBC says it will get rid of single-use plastics by 2020.

Beverage makers are particularly concerned about a pledge made by the European Union in January. Frans Timmerman, VP of the European Commission, has said that all plastic bottles must be recyclable or reusable by 2030. The goal, Timmerman stated, is to crack down on "single-use plastics that take five seconds to produce," are used for just a few minutes and take "500 years to break down again."

This will require a huge shift away from current production models. Even if big beverage makers do manage to include more recycled content in their plastics (as Pepsi and Coca-Cola have promised) and improve their recycling methods (as Danone is doing with its new Loop recycling process that promises near-infinite recyclability), there's a good chance it's too late.

Time has proven that, no matter what recycling symbol exists on a plastic bottle or how many recycling bins are spread throughout a town, consumer habits are hard to change. The recycling rate is still pathetically low, around 14 percent collection and 2 percent recycled. We know recycling doesn't work and isn't going to solve our environmental woes.

So, really, what we need is an entirely new production model that focuses instead on (a) reusable/refillable bottles, implemented through a deposit scheme; (b) biodegradable packaging, like innovative Ooho water bubbles, Wiki Pearls, and such; and (c) bottles made from materials like aluminum and glass that have much higher collection rates and greater value that makes them desirable to recyclers.

Whether the beverage companies are prepared to adopt such drastic changes is unclear, but it doesn't look the world is going to wait around for them to decide. Once plastic has become the villain, little can be done to redeem it in the public eye. The industry is right to be scrambling for Plan B.

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