Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Compounding Irony Of Plastic Water Bottles

The numbers 1 through 7 inside the little recycling triangle on the bottom of plastic bottles refer to different resins.  All can go in curbside, collection center or retail recycling bins, but #1 and #2 represent 96% of all bottles produced and 98% of those recycled in the U.S.

The pounds per capita of plastic bottle consumption in the United States has tailed off in recent years to 2004 levels, just shy of 30 lbs. per person.  This isn't because we are using fewer bottles but in part due to the light-weighting by manufactures and bottlers in response to consumer concerns.  Some are using 50% less plastic than they did a decade ago.

In his excellent book published last fall entitled Drinking Water: A History, fellow-Durhamite James Salzman notes that these bottles are generally made of petroleum, an ounce for every liter bottle.

Unfortunately, the free market fails to incorporate full-cost accounting so the costs related to natural resource depletion, Naval patrolling of sea lanes, climate change, and the grinding down of highways by trucks are not factored into costs.

If these and other costs weren’t shifted onto an unsuspecting public instead, recycling would be even more attractive and 30% of consumers would possibly be much more diligent when it comes to the 30 million bottles they toss into trash cans each year instead of placing them in recycling bins.

It isn’t clear that even the use of full-cost accounting would “turn the lights on” for the 4% of Americans who consciously litter, especially those who cite being in a “bad mood” as the rationale.  However, it may inspire the 17% who litter just because they can’t be troubled to find a receptacle.

Bottles make up 3% of the litter stream in this country, far less in  states that require a deposit on bottles.  The effectiveness of these incentives was measured in a study published in a 2010, co-authored by Duke Fuqua School of Business marketing professor Dr. Joel Huber, and economics researcher Jason Bell here in Durham and led by Vanderbilt law professor W. Kip Viscusi.

The study revealed that these incentives increase recycling from 4.38 out of 10 where there is no regulation to 6.1 out of ten where there is a recycling law.  It increases to an incredible 8.34 out of 10 where there is a water bottle deposit law.

In the year 2000, Americans consumed 12 billion plastic water bottles, part of the overall 25 lbs. of plastic bottles consumed per person that year.  Within three years that more than tripled.

As of 2011, according to a Moore Recycling Associates report prepared for the American Chemistry Council and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers,  28.9% were being recycled or 2,624 million pounds nationwide.

In my adopted home of North Carolina the rate of annual recovery for plastic containers overall is 27% or 36,046 tons with 95,377 containers improperly put in the trash or littered, a recovery loss of more than $40 million.

In 1990, less than 500 million pounds of plastic bottles were recycled nationwide.  By 2000 that had increased to 1,500 million pounds but it remained somewhat flat during the three years in which the use of plastic water bottles tripled.  Then the amount recycled began a steady climb in 2004, even continuing through the great recession.

That’s good news, but the even better news according to Salzman’s book, is that sales of bottled water have flattened since 2009, easing pressure on over-pumped aquifers.  Still, in the U.S. alone, more than 30 million bottles of water are shipped to supermarkets each year requiring as much as 17 million barrels of oil to produce.

Of the nearly 30% that are recycled, a total of 34% of all plastic bottle material of all types is exported, with 42.9% of the most frequently used resin being shipped to China.

Resin #1 is recycled into automotive use, more bottles and pallets, buckets and crates as well as plastic film and sheet plastic.  Resin #2, the second more prevalent is is recycled into non-food application bottles such as detergent, motor oil and household cleaners.

Colored #2 is repurposed for pipe, composite lumber, decking, railroad ties and non-food application bottles, but even more important than contributing to energy independence or preventing landfill and soil pollution is the contribution of plastic bottle recycling creates in terms of clean water resource conservation.

While it takes an ounce of petroleum to produce a liter plastic bottle, it takes three or four liters of water according to Salzman.  Even oil billionaires such as T. Boone Pickens see water now and into the future as our most precious resource.

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