We know plastic bottles are choking our planet. So why are companies still selling them?

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The American Beverage Association announced on Tuesday that the world’s leading beverage companies — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Keurig Dr Pepper — are investing $100 million to reduce the use of new plastic and improve plastic bottle recycling across the globe. 

Plastic packaging is scattered in every corner of our planet. It’s been found in the Arctic and the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench.

And while Canada is looking to ban some single-use plastics, such as bags, straws and cutlery, one of the most significant contributors to the problem remains beverage bottles.

A 2017 report by the U.K. newspaper the Guardian found that more than a million plastic bottles are purchased around the world per minute.

Just last week, a global brand audit by Break Free From Plastic named Coca-Cola the world’s top plastic polluter. 

So, given what we know about the problem, the real question is: Why do beverage companies still sell plastic bottles?

PET project

Our love affair with the plastic bottle started in the 1970s.

As early as 1929, there were glass bottle deposit programs in communities across the U.S. Once you returned your bottle, you received money back. It was considered an incentive to reuse.

But in the 1960s, DuPont engineer Nathaniel Wyeth wondered why the soft drink industry wasn’t using plastic for its drinks. He was told that carbonated beverages would cause plastic to explode.

The story goes that he bought a plastic bottle of detergent, cleaned it out and poured in ginger ale. He left it in the fridge overnight. By morning, the container had swelled considerably.

Following his experiment, he became determined to create a stronger type of plastic.

After years of trial and error, he developed polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which he patented in 1973.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is in plastic bottles and other kinds of food packaging. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

The soft drink industry loved it. It weighed less than glass, so it was cheaper to ship, and it didn’t run the risk of breaking.

But there were opponents to PET.

In 1969, Coca-Cola commissioned a life-cycle analysis comparing it to glass. The study ran the gamut, looking at water pollution, emissions, energy expenditure and more. 

The investigators later reproduced it for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1974. Their conclusion was that no throwaway container would match or surpass the 10-trip returnable glass bottle “in the near future.”

Coca-Cola went ahead with the new plastic bottles, anyway. The rest is history.

Inherent problems

Sara Wingstrand, new plastics economy project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K.-based environmental charity, says plastic bottles present the same problem as the rest of the plastic packaging system: There is no value in keeping them in circulation.

And since the vast majority of plastic bottles don’t find their way into recycling bins, they just keep piling up

“We don’t value the plastic bottle,” she said. “We don’t keep it and nobody really wants it.”

Creating a deposit system for plastic bottles could be one of the solutions, provided the financial incentive is enough to motivate people to return their bottles.

Bart Elmore, associate professor at Ohio State University’s department of history and author of Citizen Coke, said that back in the day, when pop cost five cents a bottle, the deposit was between one and two cents.

“That’s like a 40 per cent market,” he said. “Of course you’re going to bring back the containers. So we know it works.” 

While some are calling for a return to glass, that’s an unlikely solution due to the increase in shipping costs that international beverage companies would have to swallow.

And recycling glass has its own challenges, Elmore said. 

“The issue is it’s a lot of energy to heat it up to reclaim it, a lot more than aluminum, which is actually very efficient to recycle.”

Bottled water

And then there’s bottled water, which remains one the most ubiquitous — and socially frowned upon — of all plastic bottles.

“Part of taking a stand on bottled water, for me, is to point out the absurdity of how much money we are wasting on bottled water,” Elmore said. “Maybe the best way to a consumer’s heart is to show them how piss-poor they’re managing their pocketbook on this one.”

In his book, Elmore worked out the calculations to compare purchasing a bottle of water for $1.49 and getting it from the tap where he grew up, which was, ironically, in Fulton County, Ga., the birthplace of Coca-Cola. He determined a litre of bottled water cost 1,935 times more than drinking water from a tap.

Yet, despite the cost to consumers and the environment, the industry continues to thrive.

Bottled water remains one the most ubiquitous kinds of plastic waste. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Wingstrand believes that one of the keys to getting people to refrain from buying bottled water is to install more refill stations around cities, something that is already common on university campuses.

“There are a lot more initiatives around Europe to rapidly increase the amount of refill stations around cities, also around airports,” she said.

The future

For now, the largest beverage company in the world is trying to reduce its packaging in a few ways.

In Latin America, for example, Coca-Cola Brazil invested roughly $425 million US in a returnable plastic bottle program. The buyer pays an indirect deposit and then gets a discount when the bottle is returned. The bottles are then cleaned and reused.

The company says it’s seen a 90 per cent return rate.

On Oct. 23, Coca-Cola also announced its new “packageless” drink technology in Canada. Customers can buy a reusable cup that has a radio-frequency identification (RFID) and is synced to the company’s Freestyle machines. The machines, which are already found in some movie theatres and restaurants across the country, allow a customer to pour a drink into the bottle and charge it to their account.

Unilver, PepsiCo and Mars, Incorporated have also announced their own initiatives to reduce their use of new plastic.

And it’s all because they’re listening to consumers, experts say.

“It is becoming a major threat to their business, not doing anything about this,” Wingstrand said.

But Elmore believes more needs to be done about plastic waste across every level, from businesses to governments to consumers. 

Consumers, in particular, need to loudly express their disapproval of the current system, he said.

“We constructed it and we can dismantle it.”

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