Zero Waste: Redemption, Recycling and the Ongoing PET Problem

In one of the closing scenes of 2006 episode of Alton Brown’s science-meets-food Good Eats program on the Food Network, a segment that turned its focus on the role of water and its involvement in proper culinary execution, the host held up a clear plastic bottle. Looking through it, he quipped that this container is 100% recyclable. Soon after, hundreds (of empty bottles) fell from the sky to illustrate how many of the water-friendly containers will NOT be recycled. And that made me wonder how well we are doing thirteen years after that episode aired.

PET, an acronym for Polyethylene Terephthalate is a petroleum-based product that is globally recognized as a safe, lightweight, and flexile material that is also 100% recyclable. Because of its clarity – we like to see our water clearly – PET, both virgin and recycled has become the go-to product for packaging worldwide. According to Placon: “Both virgin and recycled PET can be used to package just about anything: water and soda bottles, food (including cakes, cut fruit, and salads), cosmetics, razors, and toys are just a few items. PET is also a common component found in fiber or fabric applications (such as carpeting, clothing, sleeping bags, and more), where it’s usually referred to as “polyester”.”

A Brief History of PET

Introduced in 1975 as a primarily business solution to glass, the PET revolution changed the dynamic of how we consumed, transported and paid for the beverages we drink. It was a game-changer for business (they were now able to pass the cost of the container onto consumers) and for consumers (the burden of recycling was now shifted to the community). Pre-1975, bottlers needed the glass they had previously filled with their beverages to be returned, cleaned and refilled. Post-1975, the bottler had no interest in the returned container. Pre-1975 as you might imagine, those containers made of glass were needed to continue sales and because of that need, recycling was important to the beverage industry. Post-1975, with the availability of cheap beverage containers and the simple fact that this lightweight, transportation-friendly and energy efficient was profitable, the onus of recycling was placed on the consumer.

An Updated History of PET

Once the recycling was shifted to the consumer – and the locales they lived in – the process, for lack of a better term, fell apart. Where every state recycled in that pre-1975 world via deposit incentives, currently only 10 states have laws on the books to recycle those containers via bottle bills. And that effort has offered a template for other states who considered mandating deposits on these containers. Simply put, if I was responsible for the states programs, I would have difficulty arguing the benefits – despite the obvious benefits. From 30,000 feet, there is no viable economic reason to follow those states.

Plastic recycling – the type done at a dedicated facility is expensive. Virgin material is less expensive as well, supported by incredibly cheap oil (and this headwind was suggested in my year-end post as problematic in 2019) and will possibly continue beyond 2019. And even as oil has created a better operating margin for the transportation industry, the logistics of getting plastic to the few processors still operating has not made the effort worth considering. So how well are the states who do offer deposits on beverage containers?

The Impact of Deposits on PET Recycling

Let’s talk about Oregon. This was the first state with a deposit on beverage containers, adopting the law in 1971. Also, as a disclaimer: In my previous position, I was responsible for the execution of this bill for my employer. Because redemptions provide hard data on the recycling success and using the numbers tracked by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality and considering the green-forward nature of the state’s reputation, it would be safe to assume that the bottle bill would produce the sort of results that would lead other states to follow.

The goal for all beverage container recycling was 80%. This number may never be met and the reasons may be why more states have not adopted this sort of effort.

Unfortunately, the results have been less than stellar. For the first forty years or so, the deposit was a nickel. The five cent deposit was increased in April 2017 to encourage greater redemption rates. And in truth, it did – but at a prohibitive cost for both the cooperative created to do the accounting and to the retailers who were on the “front line” of the redemption effort.

On the surface, this program seems to be a success. Rates increased by 12% when it comes to plastic containers. However, the overall goal of 80% has yet to be realized.

The state has hard numbers on the amount of beverage containers in the pipeline. OBRC has created numerous pathways to implement the effort from bottle drops, redemption centers and retailer locations. In January of 2018, the law was further expanded to include additional containers under 1.5ML in size (those numbers were not available at the time of this post). The results of those rapid changes to the program did not create a smoother process. Instead, the opposite happened.

The Logistics of So-so Success

The bottle bills in the ten states that have adopted the process have seen similar results – good, but not what was optimistically hoped. In Oregon, three basic headwinds have limited the success the legislation intended.

  1. Retailers do not have the infrastructure in place to handle the increased redemption categories and prices. Among the large retailers, who are required to take 144 containers per day, machinery and/or employees are needed to complete the process. And while many of the retailers have published sustainability documents professing their commitment to zero waste, none see the benefits of this program as directly impacting those publications. Few businesses can afford to upgrade machinery (while leasing is available, the average cost of replacing aging machinery – most with software that cannot be updated to the new container redemption rate – is over $30k per unit) and those upgrades may require additional structural changes. As a result, many machines throughout the state are in disrepair. Those that did upgrade have seen a slight increase in redemptions putting additional strain on the labor force. Inoperable or machines in need of service increase the need for hand counts. (This labor force is often not part of the “operations labor matrix” and must be deducted from the algorithm often used to place the right employee where they are need to achieve the optimum business result. For that reason, support of container redemptions do not play into these calculations. Store managers are then forced to reallocate labor to accommodate the process.) Customers – the group that stands to benefit the most from this effort either fail to participate due to the inconvenience – complain, walk away and dispose of their bottles another way or create an economic boon for the disenfranchised (although I prefer the term dispossessed, this group is often referred to as the homeless).
  2. In Oregon, border states without redemption bills have flooded the marketplace with containers that should be recycled (without the cash redemption) locally but with the temptation to cross those state lines to defraud the system have created a negative cost on the redemption centers and retailers involved in the process.
  3. The whole process is overseen by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission who are mandated by the bill to investigate all complaints, warn and penalize retailers who do not follow the letter of the law and levy fines or worse to retail offenders. The punishment for non-compliance can include a temporary revocation of a retailer’s liquor license. The OLCC, acing as the cop-on-the-beat do little to portray themselves as an officer-friendly type of enforcer. In short, the process has overwhelmed every partner in the process from the customer to the coop tasked with picking up and sorting the containers to the organization tasked with compliance.

State who might consider the program as a way to remove this material from the landfill and the oceans chose to avoid legislating the solution. Businesses within those states lobby hard to avoid that type of mandate.

Is it all about Leadership?

I am well aware of the common theme that has developed in the posts on this site. Leadership – both in business and government – does support these programs however their underlying ennui when leading the execution of these efforts has results in mixed messages for those tasked with the process. Recycling should not be “an evil they have to live with” and redemption should not be rife with fraud.

In the states that do have these sorts of programs in place, rather than being the template of how to succeed have drifted instead into the process that needs to be avoided. That was not the intention.

As I sat and watched Alton being covered by empty PET bottles at the end of that show on water, I have to wonder, why, after so many years later, not much has changed. The processes are in place. The incentives are real. The benefits are well-known. And although the ability of the retailer to recognize the importance of the effort in a dollars and cents report does not exist to support the decisions made on an operational level, there is information to support the program in the available data.

All it needs is a leader willing to champion the effort as a zero waste initiative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *