Californians have a love-hate relationship with their plastic bottles. We live in an on-the-go society in which 70 percent of what people drink comes from a bottle or a can, but in which the plastic bottle symbolizes a single-use, wasteful culture.
Now though, there is good news to report and it comes from Nestlé Waters, which announced this month that its Arrowhead brand single-serving plastic bottles will be produced with as much as 50 percent recycled material by the end of next year. This is a move in the right direction and will help reduce carbon emissions, set a benchmark for others in the industry and likely increase California’s first-in-the-nation recycling rates.
Nestlé’s commitment to produce its most popular Arrowhead bottle sizes with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycled plastic at its Ontario, Cabazon and Sacramento plants sets an impressive example of a major beverage producer “closing the loop” so that waste is collected, recycled and used to make new products. Nestlé is rightfully recognizing that sustainability must be a key factor in business decisions.
In a state moving to ban plastic bags and plastic microbeads due to their environmental harm, beverage bottles have emerged as a recycling success story. Over the last 25 years, California’s recycling rates for PET plastic bottles (which have #1 on the label) have increased steadily from just 4 percent in 1989 to 70 percent in 2014, compared to 31 percent in the rest of the country.
That success and the cost effectiveness of recycled PET plastic have spurred both consumer and beverage producer demand. PET plastic bottles recently passed aluminum cans as the dominant beverage container in California, with a 46 percent market share.
Much of this success can be attributed to the infrastructure and incentives created under California’s nearly 30-year old beverage container recycling law. Unique among state recycling laws, California’s requires beverage producers to cover a share of the cost of recycling, as well as support higher recycling rates.
While some beverage producers have invested in sustainable packaging, others have not. When PET plastic bottles are removed from the equation, less than 10 percent of plastic packaging in the United States is recycled. Given consumers general enthusiasm for recycling, rates below 25 percent suggest failure.
That’s what makes Nestlé’s investment in recycling worthy of both acknowledgment and imitation by the rest of the beverage industry. Its is projected to use 18 million pounds a year of used plastic water and soft drink bottles generated in California. This will help strengthen markets for recycled plastic in California, while reducing associated greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 6,613 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Nestlé’s Arrowhead bottles will have a lower environmental impact than virtually any equivalent volume of packaged food or beverage in the marketplace. If the rest of California’s beverage industry were to follow Nestlé’s example, more than 200,000 tons of greenhouse gases could be removed, the equivalent of taking 34,000 cars off the road.
There are many reasons to be outraged with the amount of packaging in our food and drinks. But Nestlé is showing that there are ways to minimize the environmental impact.
Mark Murray is executive director of Californians Against Waste.