Earth Day 2009 Sees Measureable Improvements in Bottled Water Recycling and Reducing Plastic Use

April 16, 2009

Alexandria, VA -- This year, commemoration of Earth Day includes positive news for those concerned about recycling empty plastic water bottles.  The PET plastic bottled water containers are now the single most recycled item in nationwide curbside programs, and they are being recycled at a record rate: 23.4%. That figure is a 16.4% increase from 2006’s recycling rate of 20.1%. According to International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) Vice President of Communications Tom Lauria: “There’s far more work to do to maintain and expand upon our recycling leadership position, but first let’s take a moment to thank millions of thoughtful bottled water consumers for taking an extra second or two to put their empty plastic bottles in the recycle bin.”   

This good news on Earth Day 2009 comes from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), which completed a major bale study last year in 15 locations in 14 states.  In a bale study, NAPCOR took actual bales of collected recycled PET plastic materials and sorted the materials into seven broad categories, such as food product containers, carbonated soft drinks and still water.  A second sorting took place by hand and containers were differentiated by size and color.  The bale study locations ranged from Jacksonville, Florida, to Boston, Massachusetts; from San Antonio, Texas to Dawson, Minnesota. Each site is representative of collection methods and geographic regions for the vast majority of PET bottles collected for recycling in the United States. 

Data from an earlier 2006 bale content study for all beverages, including bottled water, carbonated soda, teas, etc. indicated that the overall number of PET bottles counted per pound was approximately 12. In 2008, the total number of PET bottles increased to 13.78, a reflection of the dramatic increase in water bottle collection, as well as the continued lightweighting of other plastic containers.

To calculate the rate of recycling for bottled water, NAPCOR applied its latest aggregate bale study data to the 2007 retail sales numbers published by the Beverage Marketing Corporation (BMC) for all PET products. NAPCOR calculated that the national recycling rate for PET plastic bottled water containers (the popular, single-serve size containing .5 liter or 16.9 ounce size) has improved by 16.42%, over recycling data posted in their 2006 survey.

New NAPCOR research also presented the ecology-minded public with another benchmark: for the first time, PET water bottles now account for 50% of all the PET bottles and containers collected by curbside recycling. This trend was consistent in all curbside bales sampled nationally, with no major shifts observed in any other plastic container category. The biggest jump in water bottle collection for recycling was in California, where a state-funded consumer education campaign, which drove home to consumers the fact that water bottles are recyclable, seems to be have hit its mark.

IBWA also received word that the curbside recycling pilot program it helped to fund in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2008 has thus far  resulted so far in a 50% improvement in that city’s curbside recycling program collection. This is being accomplished through single stream collection in large plastic bins and with an incentive from The RecycleBank Rewards Program, which credits consumers after weighing their recycled material, earning participants cash credit on a credit card.  Final data from Harford won’t be available until late summer, 2009. 

There is other good news concerning reductions in plastic use by the bottled water industry.  IBWA recently tracked the average amount of plastic used in .5 liter (16.9 ounce) PET bottles, using sales data published by the Beverage Marketing Corporation to determine the lightweighting trend currently being seen in many brands of bottled water.  In the year 2000, the average weight of a plastic water bottle was 18.90 grams.  It has declined consistently on an annual basis and by 2007, the last year BMC has complete data (as this column goes to press), the average weight of a PET water bottle was 13.83 grams – a 26.7% decline.  “Several IBWA members put plastic bottles on a very successful ‘diet’ and they, too, deserve commendation for proactively responding to public concerns about the U.S. waste stream,” said Lauria.

 

The bottled water industry’s momentum toward more recycling and container lightweighting “can be seen as quickly going in the right direction,” says Tom Lauria. “These are sure signs of improvement but it’s no time to rest our laurels.  Far more needs to be done with all plastic products and containers,” said Tom Lauria. “Empty water bottles comprise only 1/3 of 1% of the waste stream.  So even if bottled water containers were to hit a 100% recycle rate, there would still be far too many plastic containers of all kinds in the landfills.  Let’s hope Earth Day inspired a more comprehensive approach product recycling then merely the current activist concerns about empty water bottles.”