Tag Archives: Recycling

a flexible solution to the plastic bottle glut

Though bottled water is often maligned by the more eco-conscious among us, it’s basic convenience is undeniable. This is the reason that in the U.S. alone we consume around 28 billion bottles of water each year, and that number is increasing.  Luckily there has been a major movement as of late to promote the use of reusable water containers of all shapes, sizes and styles. Now there’s a new option for those “bring your own bottle” types, but this one is hardly a bottle at all.  Vapur is a fully flexible, reusable water container that offers a unique alternative to one-time-use plastic water bottles.  The plastic pouches are designed to be flattened, rolled, and folded away to fit in your pocket, purse, or briefcase for optimum portability and efficiency.  The 16oz containers come in a variety of colors, are dishwasher safe, and come with resealable spouts and sport caps just like conventional bottles. At a cost of just under $9 a pouch Vapur is looking to be an attractive option for those looking to ditch the disposable plastic bottle.

Many are surprised to hear that nearly half of all bottled water comes from municipal sources, in other words its just tap water put I a bottle and sold at the store.  Even more striking is the fact that in many instances there are lower health and quality standards placed upon bottled water than those placed on public sources.  But the primary issue of course is the waste generated by disposable plastic bottles.  Though they are recyclable, four out of five bottles still make their way to the landfill.  And considering the plastic required to make them is a petroleum derived material, there is plenty of reason to just steer clear of the bottle option all together.  Here in New York City we are blest with some of the best tap water in the country.  Even more reason to consider shifting your hydration needs over to a reusable option such as Vapur.

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Coke wants their garbage back

b2b_21Last month the Coca-Cola Company opened the doors on a brand new 60 million dollar bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in Spartanburg South Carolina.  The plant is designed to produce new PET containers directly from used bottles, and will have a projected capacity of around 100 million pounds of recycled PET, enough for about 20 billion 20-ounce bottles.  The significance of this story is in part due to the fact that the facility is reported to be the largest of its kind in the world. And it draws even more importance when viewed as a potential new model for the consumer packaged goods industry to support more sustainable consumption.

Though many have already lauded Coke for this and other efforts, an equal or greater amount have continued to criticize the organization as a whole, reciting a ‘too little too late’ mantra.  Granted, Coca-Cola must be held to a higher standard when it comes to the consumer waste they produce, but the current problem of more than two thirds of the PET  bottles produced ending up in landfills, is not theirs to shoulder alone.  It is also the responsibility of the consumer and their governments to support policies and behaviors that stem this growing mountain of wasted plastic.  What is most compelling about Coke’s new facility is that it seeks to establish a market-driven solution to the problem, something that if successful may be scalable to farther reaching programs.

To understand the significance of a true bottle-to-bottle system, one must first understand a little bit about the complexity of recycling PET.  Though we have seen bottles on the market in the past that claim to be 100% recycled, these examples are few and far between because achieving such a measure is extremely challenging.  Most consumer plastic recycling is handled by a broad and loosely organized network of private and municipal collectors spread across the country.  When it comes to recycled PET, it can only perform to higher standards if it comes form a clean and reliable waste stream.  The more non-PET material it comes in contact with along it’s journey, the less suitable it becomes for recycling directly back into a food-grade plastic.  This is why most PET is downcycled into things like park benches and other low-end plastic goods, rather than being put back into bottles.

While this may not be well known to the average consumer, who wholeheartedly puts their empty bottles in the recycling bin, it was recognized by Coke as a starting point to improve the system.  This is why the new facility was created in a joint venture with United Resource Recovery Corp, a leading authority in recycled PET.  URRC has a patented process called UnPET that allows them to chemically super clean used PET plastic making it safe for being recycled back into food-grade containers. Thus Coke, by understanding the limitations to recycling, actively found a technology partner who could work with them to create a model system to bring value back into their supplychain from the post-consumer waste stream.

Collecting all those used bottles is another issue.  This is where Coke has taken things a step further and invested through there bottling subsidiary, Coca-Cola enterprises, to create a new recycling organization, Coca-Cola Recycling LLC.  This new entity will recover PET along with other recyclable materials from a variety of sources, including government recycling centers, NASCAR events, college football stadiums, and even their own manufacturing network. This shows just how comprehensive of an initiative this is, that Coke is truly attempting to create a workable construct for reaching the eventual goal of recycling 100% of their packaging.

Whether or not the venture will be profitable is another question.  It is fair to assume that such a program would at least pay-off in the long-term, but the recent dive in the cost of virgin PET surely isn’t helping.  The cost of virgin plastic is at the core of the challange for most businesses interested in recycling. As long as the cost for virgin plastic is low, the business argument for recycling is on very weak footing.  However this passed year has shown us that commodity prices can sky rocket in the blink of an eye (consider the price of oil this past summer) and when that does happen, and it will, we will see if Coke’s bottle-to-bottle brainchild can step up to the plate.

I realize this is story has already been kicked around quite a bit over the last few months. But as a designer who has worked with many large CPGs it is inspiring to see a company rise to the challenges of a complex problem and take a broader look at what their situation could be rather than simply accepting what it is, or what it has been in the past.  On the announcment of the facility opening last month Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America best summerized things by saying “The opening of the Spartanburg plant, coupled with our investment in recycling businesses, programs and a new marketing effort, underscores our belief that our packaging has value and we want it back – both for our own supply chain and to support the myriad of other uses for recycled aluminum and plastic.”

dark days for recyclers

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I hate open things up on such a down note but I just finished reading a series of articles dating back a few weeks that discuss the dismal state of the recycling industry, and I can’t help but reiterate a bit.  The recycling industry is in the midst of an economic ‘perfect storm’ which is being driven by two significant shifts in the global marketplace.  The principle cause is, not surprisingly, the current economic slow-down which has drastically reduced consumer demand for manufactured goods, including those made from recycled materials.  The situation is further compounded by the extreme drop in prices for many raw material commodities over the last few months which have made virgin materials far cheaper than they where just a few months ago.    This has been especially visible in the market for plastics which because they are derived from petroleum have been subject to the steep dive in oil prices from nearly $140 a barrel over the summer to around $40 today.

So just another victim of the bad economy – why is this significant? Because such a severe drop in demand for recycled materials means that the many thousands of tons of material that are being collected and separated on a daily basis, stand the chance of being sent to the landfill if their vendors and handlers can’t find something to do with them.  Furthermore some of these recyclers my look to scale down the amount of material they collect in order to stem rising inventories. That is if they don’t close down all together. The current situation seems almost hard to believe considering the nearly opposite state of affairs a year ago.

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In 2008 we saw one of the greatest booms in the recycling industry in decades, mid-2008 marking an all time high for many material markets.  This was paralleled by an even more extreme spike in the cost of virgin materials, which made recycled materials a competitive alternative for many manufacturers.  This resulted in the added bonus of such manufacturers seeking out new and improved ways to incorporate recycled material into their products, pushing better technology, efficiency, and even improving consumer education.  Now it looks like a lot of that progress is under threat, as many producers scale back production, revert back to virgin material, and leave recyclers to retreat the industry due to a simple lack of solvency.

Recycling has always had its skeptics, so it’s painful for many ardent supporters to see things in such a desperate state.  But it should be recognized that the market for recycled materials must be willing to withstand the same volatility as any other commodity-based market, a point well taken by most of the surviving large-scale recyclers.  In other words, this is merely a cyclical phase for recycling, from which it will undoubtedly rebound. Regardless, one would still hope that this could be achieved without adversely affecting the existing recycling infrastructure, which is already being diminished.  Maintaining pure and reliable ‘streams’ or sources of recycled materials has always been the greatest challenge for the industry, because such infrastructure is clearly expensive to establish where it does not already exist.  Virgin materials are produced from well established supply chains, all the way down the the extraction of raw materials they are refined from.  Sure, these industries are also affected by the same economic turmoil that is hurting recycling, but the main difference is one of perception.  If the demand for virgin paper or plastic slows, the surplus created is not automatically considered waste.  It is a lot easier to ignore the potential value of something considered ‘garbage’ than it is to disregard a newly produced, not yet utilized commodity product.

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This stands to some reason.  After all most recycled materials do lack in quality and performance characteristics when compared to they’re virgin counterparts.  However this does not mean that there are not still innumerable potential uses for these materials that have yet to be developed.  The success of new products that incorporate recycled sources is the greatest testament to the validity of the industry, and is even more important in the face of current adversity.  Additionally there are new business models emerging that may also hold value in preserving the future of the industry. One of the more interesting examples is demonstrated by Coca-Cola Company’s recent construction of the largest bottle-to-bottle recycling facility in the world.  This shows an unprecedented amount of investment by an actual manufacturer into the waste-stream, reaffirming the long-term strategy of viewing consumer waste as a valuable resource.  While this is a seemingly straight forward approach, there are still other models that illustrate more innovative strategy.  TerraCycle the NJ-based company that first began by re-using discarded plastic bottles to package their eco-friendly gardening products, has now expanded there business to include numerous products, upcycled directly from post-consumer packaging collected out of the waste stream.  This innovative approach capitalizes on the standardized attributes of much consumer packaging by repurposing as new products without spending the energy and capital that would be necessary to reprocess it into all together new forms.

There is of course no one solution to the current challenges facing the recycling industry.  It will undoubtedly be a combination of approaches that will endure the current problems and keep the industry going forward.  Hopefully some of these new, and reinvented companies will inspire others to take on the challenge of capturing the value inherit to our consumer waste-stream.  It is there for the taking, economy permiting.