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unnamedHave you ever walked through a grocery store and seen the vast array of drinks in plastic bottles, or been to an event and seen them sold by the thousands, and wondered where they go? Why do many of these bottles end up on our city streets, parks, streams, rivers and the ocean?

Pound for Pound, plastic is more valuable than steel when you look at the market prices for the materials, but when it is not aggregated, the players within the recycling and waste infrastructure aren’t always able to work their “magic” in order to reuse this material and put it back to use as a new product. In some countries, collection is done well, often because they have a deposit system for the bottles that are then returned into the system, thus keeping them out of our environment. Most countries, however, do not have such incentive programs, and collection is therefore limited. When you combine this fact with the fact that there is often insufficient infrastructure provided by governments or industry, including a lack of drop-off/collection locations, it is easy to understand why bottles get left behind with the rest of the trash.

Why is there not a Global Deposit program on bottles today? It is proven that these programs work, with extremely high recovery rates of 75-95% in many countries. What would happen if a company took the lead, and offered this deposit for ALL of their bottles? What if they did this for everyone else’s bottles?

Think of the many social benefits to our communities if this program was enacted, in addition to the boost in reputation of the company(s) who participate. So what is holding this type of idea back? One of the reasons is that people assume this should be a legislated program, but that need not be the case. When legislation comes into play, some stakeholders fight the new programs, thinking it will hurt their business, even if it’s a level playing field. So, when a few stakeholders lobby against it, the program often does not get implemented.

What if we instead turn this idea on its head and have the Global Deposit program come from the companies who want to be seen as community leaders? There is no reason why this needs to be legislated to work. Some will claim that offering a deposit puts them at a disadvantage to others who are not giving out deposits, but those with a vision, and knowledge of brand value creation, will see opportunities beyond just the perceived “costs” from doing something different. They will see the value in showing leadership, commitment to customers, and giving benefits to the communities it serves. The company offering the deposit also need not necessarily be a bottler, as any company could step up to the plate and offer a deposit, assuming it has a use/market for the PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles material it would be collecting. And that market is out there!

In the past, there was not much that could easily be done with PET material; most companies did not want the material piling up their doorsteps. But today, this material can be widely used, with a large secondary market. When you have aggregated material, this is more pure, valuable and usable by those within the recycling and reuse sector of the business. Technically there is also no reason today why bottles cannot become bottles again. The energy savings from recycling is also significant (over 75% in most cases), than from using virgin materials.

unnamed-1Part of the reason large scale deposit programs are not happening is because of slow regulation due to opposition from within the bottling industry, because companies have not invested enough to recover this material at scale, and because they have not invested enough in technologies to make use of the valuable PET that they collect, be that for new bottles, clothing, food packaging, or other products. This is a chicken and egg situation. Companies fear investing in the right infrastructure (which need not be very much, by the way), in order to be the recipient of PET material, because they are worried they won’t get the volume of material they need in the first place. But with a deposit, which is proven to work, a significantly larger volume of bottles/material will be available, which means the value of aggregating this material can then be realized.

In the United States, over US$800M per year is NOT getting recycled! This figure is based on the number of bottles used per year, considering the average national recycling rate of 27%. A lot of money is being left on the table. Why wouldn’t a company want to be a hero and use some of their margin (there must be a wide margin if they are willing to leave this much money from their materials in the landfill), in order to benefit our communities and environment?

unnamed-3On the design side if we are to keep using PET bottles, why aren’t all materials on the bottle made from materials that can easily be separated and recycled? Differentiated materials on labels, caps and bottles make for expensive re-sorting. Japan requires all materials to be PET. Whatever the answer, this process needs to be standardized so that all of those in the recycling space can easily participate.

In terms of collection and redemption points, companies and entrepreneurs can easily take the lead. Deposit locations need not be retail sales points, but remember that if people are coming in to drop off bottles, they might be new/existing customers who can come back in “the door.” It is possible to set up defined collection points around a city as well, which act as the material aggregation centers.

All in all, by providing deposits, or “rewards”, the economic cycle in any given community will be “turned on”, causing PET bottles to be collected “en-masse”, the missing link in turning this problem of bottle waste into a big opportunity. Now, who is going to be the hero to start this cycle of community betterment?

Doug Woodring is the Founder of the Ocean Recovery Alliance

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