RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
All of those small disposable water bottles sold in the U.S. last year contain around four billion gallons of water; taken together, a lot of water, a lot of bottles. Most of them end up in the trash, but recycling those empties has become big business around the world.
Reporter Nancy Cohen from member station WNPR tracks the journey of the water bottle, beginning where many are made.
NANCY COHEN: When the bottled water market was really taking off about a decade ago, Poland Spring choose this pristine spot in Hollis, Maine to build a new bottling plant.
Mr. BILL MAPLES (Poland Spring): This whole area is saturated with these springs.
COHEN: Bill Maples, who runs the plant, walks down to a stream not far from where the company draws its water.
Mr. MAPLES: These little bubblers are, you know, little spring points that are coming up, you can see the flow that's in that stream. It's pretty substantial.
COHEN: Poland Spring goes to great lengths to protect this watershed. But in order to sell water competitively, it bottles it in a non-renewable resource - PET or polyethylene terephthalate, made from natural gas and petroleum.
Inside the bottling plant, a bottle starts life as a pre-form made from PET resin that's melted and molded. The pre-forms look like short test tubes with threads around the net as they tumble onto a conveyor belt. Bill Maples explains they'll be heated, stretched and blown like balloons into bottles.
Mr. MAPLES: We're doing that at a rate on these machines right here, at a rate of 30,200 bottles a minute.
COHEN: That's 30,200 new bottles marching through the plant single file. Propelled by a stream of air, they knock into each other like bumper cars before getting filled.
Kim Jeffrey, president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America, says it was the PET bottle that jump-started the bottled water industry. Poland Spring, one of Nestle's brands, first bottled water in PET in 1990.
Mr. KIM JEFFREY (President and CEO, Nestle Waters North America): It revolutionized our industry because now people could get bottled water in the same format that they were drinking soft drinks in, and that changed everything.
COHEN: Now people can take water on the go. The problem is the bottles don't always get brought home to the recycling bin.
Okay, here's one water bottle, another water bottle.
I recently rifled through a thrash can in front of the state capitol in Hartford.
Another water bottle and a coffee cup and some yoghourt cups.
But not all bottles end up in the trash. About 23 percent, including soda, are recycled.
(Soundbite of machinery)
COHEN: This is a truckload of recycled plastic, glass and aluminum, which was picked up from people's homes and dumped at the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority in Hartford, one of hundreds of recycling facilities in the U.S.
Mr. SEAN DUFFY (Fairfield County Recycling): Yeah, there's Poland Springs, Deer Park, Dasani.
COHEN: Sean Duffy is president of Fairfield County Recycling, which operates this plant.
Mr. DUFFY: Here's Aquafina. Basically every brand of water bottle you'll find makes it to the curb-side program back in here. This is a very valuable material for us.
COHEN: Valuable because of the sheer number of PET bottles. Duffy says his company makes money on every one.
Mr. DUFFY: We have the capacity. We have the demand to sell the product, so we want every pound that we can get.
Mr. PAUL ZORDAN (Vice President, UltrePET): There's not enough. There's just not enough.
COHEN: Paul Zordan is constantly looking for bottles. He's vice president of UltrePET, a PET reclaimer in Albany, New York.
Mr. ZORDAN: Just watch your step. This is our sorting conveyor - our main sorting conveyor.
COHEN: Reclaiming PET is grimy, grungy work. It starts by sorting through dirty bottles, by machine and by hand.
It looks like just a bunch of garbage.
Mr. ZORDAN: It's going to be money to us if we can do our job right. It's garbage now but it's going to be - it's going to turn into a usable resin to make something out of.
COHEN: The bottles are cleaned and chopped into chips, each smaller than a cornflake. Zordan describes his work as mining. Indeed, the white flakes mined from the would-be trash sparkle like diamonds.
Then they're heated and turned into tiny white pellets of recycled PET, which competes on the marketplace with virgin PET. And this is a hot market - so hot the Chinese are coming here to buy nearly 40 percent of the bottles Americans recycle.
Mr. ZORDAN: China is the number one consumer of our material that's collected in this country. So if they're taking the lion's share, then there is only so much available for people like us.
COHEN: So while our bottles are going to China, reclaimers like Zordan crisscross the U.S. to get PET, and go to Canada, Mexico and Latin America. Nearly 300 million pounds of flakes and bottles were imported in 2005.
(Soundbite of machinery)
Mr. ZORDAN: Everything in here right now is recycled polyester...
COHEN: Interface Fabrics in Guilford, Maine relies on fiber made from recycled PET. Ben King, who oversees operations, points to an industrial loom that's weaving a heathered gray-blue cloth with a silky finish that will eventually cover the walls of office cubicles.
Mr. BEN KING (Interface Fabrics): We got colors of all different kinds here - all on recycled polyester, almost exclusively. We run a little bit of wool and a few other things but almost everything in here is recycled polyester.
COHEN: Recycled PET is turning up in a lot of things: carpets, clothing, automotive parts, and even new bottles. With so much demand for the empties - and so many bottles in the marketplace - the question pressing on recyclers and beverage companies alike is how to get more of them recycled.
For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen.
MONTAGNE: And you can track a water bottle's journey at npr.org.
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