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We Need to Put a Cap on Bottled Beverages
Bottled water may be the environmental scapegoat of the soft-drink industry.

I don't mean to let bottled water off the hook. It's absurd to pay $1 or more for 12-ounce bottles of stuff we can get from a kitchen sink for pennies per gallon, especially when the store-bought stuff often isn't any better than tap water.

It takes a lot of fuel to haul bottled spring water from far-off locales like Fiji, Iceland or Europe. And only about 15% of water bottles are recycled.

But other types of soft drinks are not much greener.

I had coffee recently with Jon Olafsson, chief executive of Icelandic Water Holdings, whose Icelandic Glacial water won its industry award this fall for most environmentally friendly water (an award I took a skeptical view of). He and other industry executives, like the CEO of Nestle, are feeling unfairly beat up on by cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, which are weaning citizens from their water bottles with public chastisement, taxes and a ban on bottled water in municipal offices, respectively. And then there are all the environmentalists who regularly slag on bottled water in blogs like LighterFootstep.

"In San Francisco, why not ban all canned and bottled drinks?" Olaffson asked me. "Why just water?"

He's got a point -- at least when it comes to recycling. In our grab-and-go culture, bottles of soda, iced tea, sports drinks and juices do their fair share of filling trash bins, garbage dumps and landfills.

Sodas still account for a full half of U.S. soft drink sales while bottled water has slightly more than a quarter of the market, according to the Beverage Marketing Corp.

Moreover, aside from a few small players like Fiji water and Icelandic Glacial (which is likely to become bigger soon after a recent investment from Anheuser-BuschBUD) the biggest bottled water brands are owned by the industry gorillas who put a variety of soft drinks onto store shelves: Dasani by Coca-ColaKO, Aquafina by PepsiCoPEP, Perrier, Poland Spring, Deer Park and others by Nestle.

So why not hold them more accountable for recycling and reusing the plastic containers for all their drinks, rather than demonizing one in particular?

The extended producer responsibility movement calls for consumer-product companies to take responsibility for the lifecycle of the containers their goods come in. It makes sense, especially when those companies have spotty records when it comes to supporting efforts that would make their goods more eco-friendly.

The big beverage companies are finally claiming to have found the recycling religion, as noted in a recent Wall Street Journal story. Coca-Cola, for one, announced last fall that it wants its bottles be made of 100% recycle or reused material. But it didn't give a time frame for doing so or say how much recycled material it uses now.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have long come under environmentalists' fire for not supporting recycling, in particular deposit programs. Even today, their Web sites notably don't talk much about them, focusing instead on community recycling , which doesn't cost them anything or actually return their bottles and cans to them.

As valuable as those other efforts are, deposits seem to be more effective at getting people to recycle.

Despite the prevalence of community and curbside programs in the U.S., the rate for soft-drink bottle recycling overall remains well below 50%.

This is partly because so many bottled beverages are bought or consumed away from home. Public spaces like airports, malls, train stations, offices, schools, parks, stadiums and concert venues often don't have recycling bins.

Who wants to be bothered carrying the empties home again, unless there's an incentive for doing so?

In the states that have deposit laws, or better yet a combination of deposits and community recycling, return rates are much higher than for the nation overall. Nearly 62% of soda bottles in New York are recycled and in California roughly half of PET and HDPE bottles (two common plastics) are recycled.

Maybe when you buy your single-serving bottles by the case at CostcoCOST or Wal-MartWMT, like so many of us do, those deposits add up to a big-enough sum that people start nagging their families to bring the bottles home.

Trouble is, only 11 states have deposit laws. In most of those the laws specify the types of beverages for which containers must carry a deposit rather than the types of container materials, and these laws were written before bottled water and other non-soda soft drinks became popular, so they are usually exempt.

Not surprisingly, plastic soda bottles are recycled at about twice the rate as containers for newer beverages like water, teas and sports drinks. But nearly 70% of soda bottles and 85% of bottles for those other drinks wind up in the trash, according to the most recent stats from the Container Recycling Institute .

But this could change soon.

This past fall, Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey introduced the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act , which calls for a nationwide 5-cent deposit on all sealed metal, glass or plastic containers smaller than a gallon.

It's an idea with potential, though Markey doesn't mention in his press release important details like how the program would be managed, what role the beverage industry would play or what the money from unclaimed deposits would fund.

Until this bill passes, and in case it doesn't, let's call on soft-drink companies -- including bottled water companies -- to take more responsibility for the waste their products generate.

We can also take more responsibility ourselves.

Get a reusable water bottle and become reacquainted with your tap. If you're hooked on your iced tea or cola of choice, buy larger containers and invest in a thermos.

You'll give your local landfill a break and maybe save a few pennies, too.

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