stacks of pet bottle bales

Opinion: Let’s remake plastic

The Every Bottle Back initiative seeks to unite the public, nonprofit and private sectors to improve PET bottle recycling.

Each year, America’s top beverage companies produce about 100 billion plastic bottles. While an estimated 35 billion bottles are recovered and recycled annually, many more end up in the waste stream. Others can be found cluttering our oceans, rivers or beaches. It’s a frustration we all share, especially as we learn more about the impact that human activity has on vulnerable marine environments. 

As individuals, we can each do our part by properly disposing of used packaging and litter, but global problems require big solutions. We need to unite public, nonprofit and private sector expertise to make far-reaching changes for future generations. 

Today, America’s beverage industry is doing exactly that, with an approach that makes systematic improvements at every step in the life cycle of a plastic bottle. By uniting an unprecedented coalition of business leaders and environmental champions, we can deliver measurable results that will serve as a model across industries. That’s the goal behind Every Bottle Back, and as president and CEO of the American Beverage Association and former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we are proud to help lead the effort. 

Launched by The Coca-Cola Co., Keurig Dr Pepper and PepsiCo, the Every Bottle Back initiative aligns America’s top beverage makers with preeminent leaders in the environmental and sustainability space, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Closed Loop Partners and The Recycling Partnership. Together, they have the resources and expertise to build a more circular system to ensure that plastic bottles are reclaimed, recycled and remade—not left in the waste stream.

Ultimately, the mission is to increase collection of valuable bottles and use less new plastic. Many consumers do not realize that beverage bottles and caps are 100 percent recyclable and designed with a versatile plastic, PET (polyethylene terephthalate), that is made to be remade. There is no reason for one of these containers to end up in a landfill, especially when recycled PET remains in high demand.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Results matter, and conservation-minded observers have learned to be skeptical of voluntary efforts. That’s why Every Bottle Back is grounded by the World Wildlife Fund’s ReSource: Plastic program, which works with businesses to accurately measure and maximize efforts to reduce plastic in the environment. This accountability will ensure that the resources we commit to the program are used wisely and make a real difference for future generations.

To that end, we have marshaled the equivalent of nearly a half-billion dollars to improve the quality and availability of recycled plastic. With these resources, The Recycling Partnership and Closed Loop Partners will work hand in hand with local governments to make significant infrastructure investments, modernize technology, boost collection rates and provide greater access to recycling collection at home.

The initiative also will drive consumer awareness. That includes packaging, which will carry a clear and uniform message beginning in 2020, reminding consumers that their beverage bottles were never intended to be single-use. They are designed to be fully recyclable.

Of course, this challenge will not be solved by consumers alone. We must close gaps in our circular economy, and that’s why Every Bottle Back will be a long-term and sustained initiative, designed to ensure plastic bottles end up back on shelves and not as litter or in landfills or waterways. Protecting the environment is a priority for all. And thanks to this groundbreaking partnership, we can forge a new path for consumer goods that delivers value to companies, consumers and the planet.

It won’t happen overnight, and the solutions that work best for beverage bottles may not apply to other kinds of plastic packaging, but the lessons we learn and the results we deliver matter. With smart, tailored solutions and firm commitments from the world’s biggest brands, there’s no reason we cannot shift the economy toward a more circular model for plastics use.

Katherine Lugar is president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, Washington. Carol Browner is a former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the strategic advisor to Every Bottle Back.