This past week, The Wall Street Journal, reported on a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic recycling plant in Spartanburg, S.C. built to meet the demands for recycling plastics. What started out as a promise to push PET products like beverage bottles from landfills (and our oceans) and back into reusable materials, has fallen miserably short. Centered on Coca-Cola’s promise to recycle 100% of its bottles and cans by 2020, the article focused on the challenges of  getting plastic out of our trash and into recycling facilities like the one here in S.C.  Unlike glass, which can be endlessly recycled and not lose its quality, plastic recycling requires type-based separation or it can be deemed defective and defect cannot be reused for product packaging.  It’s not just the mixing of plastics that’s the issue – simply put – not enough of our plastics are making it out of the trash and into the recycling bin.

A few points that stood out:

  • As a nation, we recycle a smaller percentage of bottles today than we did in 1995.
  • Coca-Cola’s bottles contain less PET recycled content today than they did 5 years ago – 5% versus 10%.
  • PepsiCo’s bottles contain only 10% recycled PET.
  • The U.S. recycling rate for plastic bottles made from PET, typically derived from petroleum, was 28% in 2009.

You can read the whole WSJ article here, or watch the video with reporter Mike Esterel.

What’s clear is that while we wait for incentive-based programs like bottle-deposits,
or we wait for better access to convenient recycling, or while we wait for engineers to find ways to better recycle plastics, our landfills and oceans are filling up with the nearly 75% of plastic that ends up in the trash.

What can we do? Here are 3 things you can do to help put plastics where they belong:

  1. Limit the plastic you consume. Choose and use a reusable glass bottle whenever possible. Use glass food storage containers and limit purchasing ‘convenience sized’ products which are usually plastic-wrapped and highly wasteful.
  2. Recycle. If you have to use plastic, we hope you’ll recycle it at your curbside, or in public recycling centers.
  3. Reward.  If you live in one of the 10 states with a bottle-deposit reward program, take advantage and get that coin back in your pocket. If you’re in one of the 40 states without such a program, write your state elected officials and get
    rewarded for recycling.  (States with bottle-deposit reward programs have on average 2x the plastic recycling rate of states without such a program.)