Battle over Method Thwarts Bottle Recycling Less than one-quarter of the billions of plastic bottles Americans purchase every year are recycled. But bottlers, environmental activists and others disagree on the best way to increase that amount.
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Battle over Method Thwarts Bottle Recycling

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Battle over Method Thwarts Bottle Recycling

Battle over Method Thwarts Bottle Recycling

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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All that water and not enough to drink. Thousands of people in flooded areas have no source of clean water. Water treatment works was flooded, cutting off safe water to 150,000 homes. People are being asked to conserve and bottled water is being provided.

Americans purchase billions of plastic beverage bottles every year, and fewer than a quarter of them and fewer than a quarter of them will be recycled. But companies that reclaim plastic resin known as PET and turn it into new products cannot get enough of it.

Nancy Cohen from member station WNPR in Hartford reports on what's getting in the way of recycling.

NANCY COHEN: If you want to see recycling at its worst, go to a big public event like a Major League Baseball game.

Unidentified Man #1: Water. Ice cold bottles here. Water.

COHEN: At Fenway Park in Boston there's a lot to pay attention to; where to put an empty bottle isn't high on the list. And with more than 36,000 fans and no recycling bins in sight, a lot of bottles end up in the trash. In this case, a little league park may have a better game plan.

Unidentified Man #2: Come on.

Unidentified Man #3: Go right, go right, go right, go.

Unidentified Man #4: Come on.

COHEN: It's an All Star game in Mansfield, Connecticut and a transparent receptacle with a recycling symbol stamped on the outside has increased recycling bottles and cans in town parks by about 60 percent.

Ms. VIRGINIA WALTON (Recycling Coordinator, Mansfield, Connecticut): It was like, yes, this is the answer to public events.

COHEN: Mansfield recycling coordinator Virginia Walton says the key to getting people to recycle more is give them a way to do it and make it a no-brainer.

Ms. WALTON: It needs to be something that a person approaches it, oh, yeah, right there, without thought. It's not that they shouldn't have thought, it's that they don't.

COHEN: Public recycling bins of any kind are rare in this country, but Michael Schedler of the National Association for PET Container Resources says the industry that recycles PET bottles into fabric carpets and new bottles is hungry for a lot more. Only 23 percent of PET is recycled.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHEDLER (Vice President of Technology, National Association for PET Container Resources): The demand is almost bottomless at this point. I mean, there's so much new demand coming on and the existing demand can't be met, so we're in quite crunch.

COHEN: Recycling programs for plastic bottles across the country are a hodgepodge, with each state and town doing its own thing. Some recycle plastic at the curb, others at drop-off centers; some not at all. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council says container deposit laws, also known as bottle bills, give a financial incentive to recycle.

Dr. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ (Senior Scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council): People realize in bottle-bill states that throwing out a can with a deposit on it is, in effect, throwing out a dime or a nickel. People see them as the equivalent of a dime, and they separate them and they accumulate them and they bring them back to the retail establishment and they collect their few dollars.

COHEN: Some people short on cash collect and redeem shopping carts full of containers.

But Richard Garver, who is feeding a few empties into a redemption machine, says he'd bring them back even if there wasn't a deposit.

Mr. RICHARD GARVER: It's just better for the environment. You don't want to throw them out in the trash because it just fills up the landfills.

COHEN: The 11 states with bottle bills account for more than 60 percent of the PET plastic that's recycled in this country. But grocers are dead-set against deposits.

Mr. KEN CAPANO, (Owner, ShopRite store, Connecticut): It's somewhat dirty, it's inconvenient, and it actually costs us money

COHEN: Ken Capano, who owns two ShopRite stores in Connecticut, says the deposit law in his state places too much of the burden of recycling on grocers, who have to provide space and machines to take the bottles back. Capano says it costs each of his stores about $20,000 a year.

Mr. CAPANO: Utilities to run the machines, utilities to light the area, all have gone up. Also, I have to rent these machines.

COHEN: Bottlers who have to administer container deposits in some states also oppose them. Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, says curbside programs work better.

Ms. SUSAN NEELY (President, American Beverage Association): The key is a comprehensive program that draws in not just bottles and cans, but milk jugs and newspapers and magazines and detergent bottles and all the things that make up the waste in our communities.

COHEN: In California, the deposit program funds curbside recycling. Jim Hill of the California Department of Conservation says the state uses the money from bottles and cans that aren't returned. That adds up to $250 million a year.

Mr. JIM HILL (Recycling Specialist, California Department of Conservation): The two aren't usually exclusive. Curbside systems, drop-off systems all working together I think is the best approach to get the best bang for your buck.

COHEN: California also addresses some of the grocers' concerns. Instead of supermarkets taking back the bottles, independent redemption centers do. And California puts a deposit on all beverage containers except milk and wine.

Kim Jeffrey, president and CEO of Nestle Waters North America, says he's not against container deposits, but he says beverages should not be the only containers that are targeted.

Mr. KIM JEFFREY (President/Chief Executive Officer, Nestle Waters North America): Everybody that sells a plastic container that's recyclable should have some deposit on it if we're going to do this thing the right way.

COHEN: And Jeffrey means everybody.

Mr. JEFFREY: If it's P&G with a detergent container, if it's ConAgra with a peanut butter container, or if it's me with a bottled water container, or if it's a dairy with a one-gallon milk container there should be a level playing field on this.

COHEN: Allan Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council says if Americans don't recycle more plastic, we'll make other problems will get worse.

Ms. HERSHKOWITZ: Petroleum-based plastics emit enormous amounts of hazardous emissions and greenhouse gases during the acquisition of the petroleum and the transformation of that petroleum into a plastic product.

COHEN: Hershkowitz says recycling avoids that pollution, but making recycling work isn't a national priority. The growing market demand for empties may trigger a new commitment.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Cohen.

INSKEEP: And you can follow the process of recycling a plastic bottle at

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