Complex Problem = Complex Solution

Complex problems demand complex solutions. This cliché holds when it comes to recycling. But how do decision-makers and consumers sort through the rhetoric to better understand challenges around recycling?

The first step is to acknowledge that a complex challenge involves multiple actors and systems. In the case of PET plastic bottles, our industry is working on many levels to ensure more of our beverage containers are recycled. This understanding includes global realities, container design decisions, consumer behavior, processing capabilities and end users.

Any one of these factors contains multiple decisions, interactions and behavior change. Not easy stuff, but our member companies have worked for decades to reduce our environmental footprint. Our work continues with a renewed focus on our plastic footprint.

Global market pressures—specifically China’s Sword—have been a game changer for lots of recyclables including plastics. When a country the size of China decides to stop buying mixed plastic and mixed paper from the United States, the ripple effect is big. Much as been written about this market disruption and any meaningful policy conversation must start with this fact.

However, our members use a type of plastic called PET which is much different from the mixed plastics China has rejected. In fact, PET is still a highly sought- after plastic, particularly for bottle manufacturers and a multitude of PET end users like carpeting and clothing manufacturers. So, any discussion of banning or restricting sale of plastic bottles must include the economic reality that PET plastic is a valuable commodity for many industries thriving in the United States.

Another dimension in any recycling discussion is how manufacturers make decisions about the materials they use in packaging. For the beverage industry, materials like aluminum and PET plastic ensure the safety of our beverages as they make their way from production to consumer. Our packaging must keep out pathogens that could harm people and it must also preserve a peak taste experience. Depending on the type of beverage we make, PET plays a vital role in delivering on both safety and satisfaction.

Once this packaging decision is made, our members work to reduce the amount of virgin material in a bottle or can. They work with container manufacturers on things like light weighting and increased use of recycled content to achieve this. And the beverage industry continues to push for more innovation on both these levels and beyond, including compostable materials.

But what about consumer behavior? Yep, it joins this complex mix of factors that drive recycling. Thanks to tireless work from groups like Keep America Beautiful and government agencies like the Ohio EPA, consumers are highly interested in recycling. Unfortunately, in their zeal to recycle many households do not fully understand what is and is not recyclable.

Consumer education around what can be recycled and how to do it is essential. For example, our PET plastic bottles are 100% recyclable, including the caps, yet many consumers think they should take the caps off or put their empty bottles into a plastic bag before tossing everything into a recycling bin. Fortunately, there are many groups, agencies and industries like ours working together on consumer education—much more work lies ahead.

Another huge area for consideration in recycling any material are processers. These are the folks who sort, clean and bundle recyclables for market. Policymakers are taking a deeper look at where these facilities are located and how their technological capabilities stack up against what they must do to deliver saleable materials. This type of system analysis is not easy nor is it cheap, but it is an essential part of the chain to get more materials to end users.

And finally, growing supply and demand for recycled content is ongoing. In our industry, member companies are making serious commitments around recycled content (more on this in the coming months) and how to get it. Clothing manufacturers also want more PET plastic to turn into performance fabrics. This desire for feedstock is critical but the complexity of getting reliable, useable materials to end users must get more attention.

Fortunately, the hard work of improving recycling in the United States has many champions and several players who understand the complexity of meaningful change and how to achieve it. The beverage industry remains committed to this work and we will soon announce a new, multi-pronged strategy to reduce our plastic footprint. I am grateful that this work will also greatly benefit the entire system. Stay tuned for more details.

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