Tuesday, May 4, 2010

alexbogusky's posterous: Remember when plastic bottles were against the law?

I was recently having breakfast with a friend. He advises one of the soft drink companies, and was very excited about some of their new work in the area of recycling. Although it was good news and a progressive step, I had a hard time getting excited about it. Maybe one of the reasons was that I had just returned from a conference at the Golden Gate Institute, where much of the focus was on all the plastic poisoning our oceans. Basically, all the plastic we’ve created is now in our oceans. Several speakers were focused on this problem and had images of the Pacific Plastic Garbage Patch. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of this patch is made up of plastic bottles and, even more troubling for sea life, the caps of these bottles. This patch, roughly the size of Texas, is dramatic but the problem is not limited to the patch. It’s closer to home on the shores of every beach in the world, no matter how remote. Perhaps most troubling, plastic has seeped into our food supply. Broken-down bits of plastic (and their poisonous compounds) exist within in every fish in the sea. Every single fish. Consequently, that same poisonous plastic is now inside us. We are essentially eating and drinking all the plastic we’ve created.

Recycling is a good start. We gather as much of the plastic bottles as we can, grind them up into a raw material and make more. It should be noted that the caps are not usually recyclable. So they, at best, wind up in a landfill. But the essential limitation of recycling is that it is not a closed-loop. A closed loop being when 100% of the material is captured and reused to make the next generation. No matter how good we are at recycling, it is an open-loop; a system which allows a large percentage of whatever materials you’re dealing with to escape into the environment. A very large percentage. So although any progress in recycling is worth applauding, I find that in the area of soft drink packaging, it’s far less impressive given the fact that a closed-loop system already existed and could be easily recreated.

I like to fantasize about my grandfather suddenly coming down from heaven to have a look around. Not just because he was such a warm and amazing man, but because it helps me gain the perspective and wisdom of former generations. If he did show up tomorrow and we had the time to have a look around at many of the problems that exist today, I think he would blow a gasket. And I don’t think he would be impressed with our plans to address obesity and childhood diabetes and the pollution of our planet and its oceans. I think all our grandparents and great grandparents would basically say the same thing: “Full-fucking stop. Full stop. We are gonna figure this shit out this weekend and start again on Monday.” Although in some cases it might take a little longer, in the case of the billions of pounds of toxic beverage packaging, the elders would simply do one thing. Bring back glass bottles and the bottle law.

Some of you are old enough to remember the cradle-to-cradle system of deposit bottles. As a kid, it was how I got candy money. We would go around finding as many bottles as we could and take them to the grocery to exchange them for cash. Those bottles were part of a closed-loop where bottlers cleaned and reused the bottle. Sometimes, you could tell a bottle had been through the system many, many times from the wear marks from the bottling machinery or a chipped logo. It was sort of cool. Sometimes you might even get a sprite with an older logo on it. Sort of a soda treasure.

What I never understood was that this wasn’t a function of just good bottler behavior but it was a function of law. A law which my friend, Catherine Greener of Clear Green Advisors, taught me about last week. A law that said if you put a bottle into the system, you were responsible for that bottle. Whoa. Responsible. That is what every corporation wants to be. They talk about it all the time and here is an ironclad way to achieve responsibility for your waste stream so it doesn’t become somebody else’s problem. Like the fishes’ problem or moms’ problem because she’s feeding plastic-contaminated tuna to her kids.

Glass bottles have one drawback and we should talk about it. Weight. The weight causes higher shipping cost and that can lead to more fossil fuels burned. Not good. But everybody already accepts more localized bottling is better. Coke suggests that shipping is a small part of their footprint specifically because they already have 600 bottlers worldwide.
So we’re good there.

Now here’s the trick: we need to bring back the bottle law. And when the idea of the bottle law get’s suggested, which it is from time to time, I bet you can imagine who is lobbying to stop it. Bringing back the bottle law should be the number one mission of every sustainability officer in every beverage company. When they start telling us about other initiatives they’ve got going, we should just answer, “BOTTLE LAW! What? I can’t hear you. BOTTLE LAW!” alexbogusky's posterous

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