Recycling, which has been a part of an effort by U.S. households and businesses to reduce waste and help the environment, is shutting down in many parts of the country. The one approach to recycling that works – container deposit laws – is found in only ten states and not supported by Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dow, the plastics producer. Container deposit laws, also known as bottle bills, cost the companies lots of money.
- In May, the U.S. sent 64.9 million kilograms of plastic scrap to 58 countries. What can business leaders and policymakers do to control plastic waste that is now understood to be a cause of species extinction, ecological devastation, and human health problems?
- If the other 40 states were to adopt expansive bottle bills, it could ultimately cost the industries billions more. How can companies support bottle bills as part of their corporate social responsibility and sustainability goals? What more incentive do they need?
- Recycling is collapsing in many parts of the country. What can you do to support bottle bill legislation in your state? How can you help educate voters and policymakers on this topic?
- “Recycling has been dysfunctional for a long time,” said Mitch Hedlund, executive director of Recycle Across America. “But not many people really noticed when China was our dumping ground.”
- States which do not have deposits on cans and bottles only see a recycling recovery rate for these items of about 30%. States with a deposit on cans and bottles have a recycling recovery rate of about 60%.
- Recycling in much of the country still depends almost entirely on the goodwill of consumers to place their used containers in a bin for pickup. The process is convenient but means millions of bottles and cans head straight to a dump instead.
For decades, beverage companies, retailers, and many of the nonprofit groups they control have fought to kill bottle bill proposals across the country — with great success. Since 1987, only Hawaii has passed a bottle bill.
Lawmakers in at least six states have proposed legislation to add bottle bills so far in 2019. Bills have been proposed in Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, said although lawmakers propose bottle bills every year, having six different states with active proposals is higher than usual.
“A big factor in all of this is that beverage companies and makers of other types of packaged goods have come out with new sustainability goals,” Collins says. “They have goals saying they will use a certain amount of recycled content. But that material is not available because we’re not collecting enough polyethylene terephthalate, or PET.”
China’s decision in 2017 to stop receiving the vast majority of plastic waste from other countries exposed our dysfunctional recycling system. That year, when the Chinese government announced the National Sword policy, as it’s called, the U.S. sent 931 million kilograms of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong.
The U.S. has been offloading vast amounts of scrap this way since at least 1994 when the Environmental Protection Agency began tracking plastics exports. The practice has served to both mask the mounting crisis and absolve U.S. consumers of guilt. But in fact, much of the “recycled” plastic scrap that the U.S. sent to China appears to have been burned or buried instead of being transformed into new products.