In 2010, Pepsi set a goal: The company wanted to help raise the recycling rate for drink containers in the U.S. from around 38% to 50%. The company and PepsiCo Foundation spent $55 million on recycling efforts, from the Dream Machine–a kiosk that with rewards for recycled bottles–to support for the Closed Loop Fund, which helps cities implement curbside recycling. But the most recent numbers for the U.S. beverage container recycling rate show that it has dropped slightly rather than grown.
Pepsi is now spending $10 million to seed a new program to help build out recycling infrastructure in the U.S., with a goal of raising a total of $100 million for the effort. But while the infrastructure is needed–right now, about a quarter of American households don’t have access to curbside recycling, and even some of those who do have to opt-in or subscribe to use it–recycling advocates say that the work may not be enough to make more people recycle.
It’s possible that a change in the law might accomplish more. In Germany, 98% of plastic bottles are recycled. In British Columbia, 75% are recycled. In the U.S., plastic bottles are recycled at an even lower rate–28%–than other containers. The reason why most bottles and cans in Germany are recycled is straightforward, advocates say: Like a handful of U.S. states, the governments require bottle deposits. When you buy a six-pack of beer or a can of Spezi in Berlin, you pay a little extra for the containers, and if you bring them back to the store–feeding them into a machine that automatically recognizes what kind of bottle or can you’ve pushed inside–you get the deposit back. It’s “blatantly obvious,” says Susan Collins, president of the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute, that this type of deposit scheme leads to higher recycling rates.
The beverage industry, along with the grocery industry and waste hauling industry, has lobbied hard against “bottle bills” in the past. In Massachusetts in 2014, when advocates wanted to expand an existing bottle bill to include more types of bottles, industry groups spent more than $9 million to defeat the proposal. Similar fights have happened in other states.
“The money is being spent, ongoing, in an invisible way,” says Collins. The industry, which also lobbies against other regulation, such as soda taxes, has cited concerns about convenience and cost. The laws vary by state, but bottlers typically have to pay for collecting and recycling containers. The industry says that redemption centers cost three times as much as running municipal recycling programs. Bringing bottles back to a store or redemption center takes more effort for consumers than putting bottles in a bin at the curb (on the other hand, these laws also tend to create underground industries of collectors who pick through trash cans and recycle for those who don’t take the time themselves). The drink industry believes that city recycling systems make more sense.
PepsiCo says that it has spent the last several years learning how best to invest to deliver the most recycling, and its new grant, given to the nonprofit Recycling Partnership, builds on that experience. “What you’re seeing now is kind of a culmination of what we have learned,” says Tim Carey, senior director of sustainability at Pepsi. “What we found was the number-one place to invest in the short term is really curbside [recycling], because there’s so many underserved communities.” The funding will also support increasing access to recycling in apartment buildings, along with education.
As You Sow, a nonprofit that originally pushed Pepsi to try to stem the flow of cans and bottles into landfills, says that the work that the Recycling Partnership does to fix the problems of recycling at a local level is useful. But the scale is not yet large enough to make a difference, says Conrad Mackerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. The new plan calls for $15 million from other companies and $75 million in support from cities that may not necessarily be able to afford it; Mackerron believes that to make a change, the total funding would need to be at least 10 times larger. He also says that bottle deposits are known to work. “Nobody seems to want to look at the obvious, which is to have a law requiring it,” he says.
Attitudes in the industry may be beginning to shift, at least in some locations. In the U.K., where the government announced plans for a deposit scheme in March, a Coca-Cola executive called the idea a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to “change the packaging recovery and recycling system for good.” To meet a new EU law designed to reduce plastic in the ocean, European countries now also have to meet a target to recycle 90% of plastic bottles, and several countries have recently added bottle deposit laws in response. “It’s the only way that they can meet these targets,” says Collins, adding that as the new laws begin to seem inevitable, Coke has voiced its support.
Evidence continues to mount that the programs do increase recycling rates. In Oregon, where an existing deposit law was updated in April 2017 to increase the deposit from the original 1970s-era rate of 5¢ to 10¢, the redemption rate increased as well in the following months, from 64% to 82%. States that have deposit laws, such as Michigan, have higher recycling rates than those that don’t have the laws, such as Alabama. The laws can also help states and cities deal with the fact that China no longer wants to take American plastic waste. And because they can easily be remade into other drink containers, so there’s a stronger market to recycle them in the United States, according to Collins.
Pepsi is pushing to improve the sustainability of its packaging in multiple ways, including experimenting with the kinds of packaging that it uses, such as “Drinkfinity,” a system that adds flavored pods to water rather than shipping larger bottles. “We know that recycling alone is not enough to solve waste management issues as they are today,” says Carey. By 2025, the company aims for all of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, or biodegradable, with an increased use of recycled materials and a lower carbon footprint. The company’s Naked Juice line already uses 100% recycled plastic. (Pepsi says that it wants to use more recycled plastic, but needs to increase recycling rates to have enough supply.) And as the company pours money into improving recycling infrastructure, it hasn’t ruled out supporting deposit laws.
“I think our perspective is, if people have ideas, let’s talk about them either as an industry or between industry and NGOs or industries and interest groups to see what’s possible,” says Carey. “Can we design more effective or efficient systems? Obviously, we’re working inside them in Europe and in Canada and in several U.S. states, and I don’t know that we’ve found a perfect model, but we’d love to talk more to people about their ideas for how can we assure that bottles and cans that go in the market get collected and get collected in hopefully a financially efficient way.”
Collins argues that supporting new state laws–and strengthening existing laws that were set in the 1970s and don’t apply to some of the largest sources of packaging trash now, like water bottles–is the most effective way to make change and meet the new program’s goal of recycling 7 billion bottles and cans.
“If they just stopped fighting, let people modernize the programs, let them expand, they could have those 7 billion containers tomorrow,” she says. “I wish Pepsi would save their lobbying money.”