Every year, around 87 billion plastic bottle caps are made in the U.S. alone– and most end up in the trash. A company in Brazil hopes to help change that with this line of caps that you might actually want to keep: Each turns into a Lego-like block that can be used as a toy or to build furniture.
“I wanted to develop a sustainable cap, and I think it’s better to innovate by looking for a problem than by looking for an idea,” says Claudio Patrick Vollers, the CEO of Clever Pack, the company that makes the new caps. “I looked at the whole lifecycle of packaging, including the recycling process, and looked for the biggest environmental problem.”
Recycling, he noticed, takes quite a bit of energy, both for transportation and the electricity used to melt plastic. So even if a cap makes it to the recycling bin (an unlikely event in the U.S., though it’s a little more likely in Brazil) it still has an environmental impact.
“I found my opportunity: develop a cap that doesn’t get into the recycling cycle,” Vollers says. “Making a cap with two lives–in the first it is a closure, and in the second life it becomes a block. It was important to me that the consumer wouldn’t have to do anything, like cutting, to reuse the cap. That inspired me to develop Clever Caps.”
The caps are compatible with Legos, both because Vollers is a Lego fan and because he thought that the design would make them most likely to be used. Beyond toys, they can also be stacked into stools, tables and other furniture.
But do we actually need 87 billion new Lego-like blocks every year? Or even more, if these are sold globally? That might be the flaw in this otherwise adorable product.
“Yes, reuse is better than recycling. But that only works if you’re actually reducing the amount of material used in the first place–if you’re using that reuse to offset something that would have been produced otherwise,” says Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit that studies the industry.
A typical household of three people would get 600 new blocks a year. “The possibility of these actually being used seems unlikely,” Collins adds. “Meanwhile, if the cap uses up more plastic as your normal light-weighed cap, it’s absolutely a step in the wrong direction.”
The tiny caps that manufacturers have recently introduced on some bottles actually do have an impact, she explains, since small decreases in the amount of plastic used quickly add up when you’re making billions of a certain product. “That’s where you’re getting the savings. If you’re not having to pump the oil out of the ground or pump the natural gas out of the ground in order to make this plastic product, that’s where you have a real environmental benefit.”