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Container Recycling Rate Not Nearly Good Enough

A new report from the Container Recycling Institute shows U.S. recycling rates for containers are and have been poor. Based on more than 20 data sources, from the beverage market to U.S. census tables, "Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)" indicates sales of disposable beverage containers grew 22 percent from 2000-2010, with per capita consumption up 8 percent over that period, but the rate at which we recycled the empty containers fell.

The non-profit institute's report showed 243 billion beverage packages were sold domestically in 2010—glass bottles, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, foil pouches, gabletop cartons, and other containers. Of these, 153 billion were either landfilled, littered, or incinerated. "This put the national wasting rate for 2010 at 63 percent, a nearly 10 percent increase over 2000, when the wasting rate stood at 59 percent, and a whopping 20 percent jump since 1990, when our non-recycling rate for containers stood at approximately 52 percent," according to the institute's news release. "In other words, between 1990 and 2010—a period that saw almost feverish growth and investment in municipal recycling programs, education and infrastructure—Americans have persisted in wasting more beverage containers than they've recycled."

The surge in bottled water sales and in sales of beverages consumed away from home are part of the problem. "Recycling rates have stagnated in large part due to a dramatic increase in consumption of these beverages, especially at businesses and in public spaces where recycling bins are scarce," said Susan V. Collins, president of the institute. "Another key factor in the decline in recycling rates is the unwillingness of state legislatures to enact effective recycling policies, especially new or expanded container deposit laws."

If the 153 billion containers wasted in 2010 had been diverted back to the manufacturing stream, the equivalent of 203 trillion BTUs of energy would have been saved, enough to power almost all of the homes in Los Angeles and Chicago combined, and this also would have eliminated the release of 11.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the institute reported.

"To realize meaningful energy savings and reduce the GHG emissions associated with beverage consumption, beverage container recycling must dramatically increase across the country," Collins said. "As the report points out, minor percentage changes in recycling rates won't cut it. If we are to adequately reduce the environmental consequences of extracting, processing, manufacturing, and shipping billions of short-lived containers, national recycling rates for all major container materials must edge above 90 percent. And the only recycling method shown to achieve anywhere near that level of recovery is the refundable container deposit, an early form of extended producer responsibility."

The 11 U.S. states with container deposit laws in 2010 recycled 66 percent to 96 percent of the containers covered under their laws, but the average recycling rate for all beverage containers in non-deposit states was 30 percent, according to the report.

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