Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Glass, Plastic, or Aluminum?

Spotted on the road: a Coca-Cola truck emblazoned with an image of the product in a glass bottle, and these words: “Enjoy the Coke, recycle the bottle.” But what happens to these bottles when someone turns them in? Do they get sent to a Coca-Cola bottling facility where they are inspected, sanitized, and refilled with Coke? Or do the bottles go to a material recovery facility (MRF), where they are cleaned, ground up, and sold to facilities making a variety of glass products? Which scenario is more likely, and which is more environmentally friendly?

Reuse seems like an obvious answer until you consider the logistics. How does the sorting and distribution work to get Coke bottles sent to a Coca-Cola bottling facility to be refilled? These bottles have a unique shape that wouldn’t interest bottlers of other beverages. Should grocery stores manage the sorting? We’re in Seattle. Do the containers need to be shipped back the Coca-Cola bottling facility in Atlanta or is there a facility on the West Coast?

What about the transportation costs—in both energy and dollars—associated with shipping all those empty glass bottles? Glass is rather heavy. Some US states don’t allow curbside glass recycling because there are no local processing facilities and the cost of shipping the glass is too high. If you’re curious about some of the data behind glass recycling, check out this article.

In Seattle we have local glass bottle recycling plants where glass is ground up, but might there be a way to refill the bottles locally? A participant at a talk I gave recently mentioned that beer companies used to collect glass bottles, wash them, and refill them. Perhaps we can go to back to this kind of model. But, again, the logistics of separating branded products and getting them back to the manufacturers might be a bit tricky.

The Closed Loop Foundation completed a study in 2017 examining ways to increase recycling of glass at MRFs. The study targeted facilities located within 100 miles of a glass processing plant. The study report discussed the declining rates of glass recycling and suggested that if MRFs invested in cleaning systems, they could produce a more valuable stream of ground glass free from contaminants and resell it at a rate that justifies the up-front expense of the equipment.

Coca-Cola is promoting recycling of both glass and plastic bottles, but the company is paying attention to the trend away from disposable packaging as well. Soda companies, including Coca-Cola, are backing alternative modes of beverage distribution, such as machines that will refill reusable containers with water for free or with a flavored beverage for a small fee. Photos from an April press release show smiling students at the University of Central Florida refilling aluminum water bottles at a Dasani-branded machine installed on campus.

The major beverage manufacturers have a lot at stake but also a significant influence. They can make changes to reflect the new reality around disposable plastic that will allow them to stay in business, keep customers happy, and get brownie points for social responsibility. There’s something to contemplate as you enjoy a Coca-Cola or other beverage of your choice. Drink responsibly!