Is plastic a waste or a resource? For some, the word “plastic” has become a four-letter word, the poster child of mismanaged waste, and a blight on our environment.
But what if it didn’t have to be? What if what we really have is a valuable resource at our fingertips — safe, lightweight, durable, and most importantly, 100 percent recyclable?
The truth is, the plastic we use to make most of our water bottles was not meant to be thrown away. It was designed to be collected, recycled and reused again and again. This process is known as a “circular economy,” and it is the key to significantly reducing the need to create new plastic.
Achieving a circular economy is a simple model – efficiency: use less material; recovery: make sure you get the material back; and reuse: create new life into that recovered material.
Over the last two decades, our company has led the beverage industry in efficiency. We have reduced by nearly two-thirds the amount of plastic in our bottles; in 1990, our half-liter bottle weighed 24 grams, and it now weighs only 8.45 grams. These reductions have saved approximately 65 million pounds of plastic each year.
But efficiency will only get us so far. To keep plastic bottles from becoming garbage, we need to recognize them as the valuable commodity that they are – by using and better enabling the use of recycled plastic.
Right now, there is a simple supply and demand problem in the U.S.: Buyers of recycled content, like Nestlé Waters, can’t source enough quality material at competitive prices, and suppliers of rPET aren’t getting the market signals necessary to increase the quality and supply.
A major reason for this is a lack of predictability in the market. Price volatility in the virgin plastic market has made long-term supply contracting for recycled materials difficult. Without long-term purchase commitments, recycled content providers are reluctant to make the investments necessary to increase and improve their production.
That is why we, as one of the leading beverage companies in North America, are doubling down on our use of recycled, food-grade plastic, or rPET. We are working with suppliers all over the country to establish multi-year contracts that will nearly quadruple our use of rPET in less than three years. By 2021, 25 percent of our U.S. domestic bottles will be made from other bottles. And we’re not stopping there – we are rapidly working to increase that number to 50 percent by 2025.
With a shift in oil commodity prices, and China’s decision to stop accepting foreign plastics, a narrative has taken shape implying that recycling in the United States is all but dead. But I believe that there is a story not being told: that we are looking at the beginning of a booming domestic recycling market.
Making the transition to a circular economy will be one of the great tests of our time, and it will not be an easy one. It will require a critical mass of companies and consumers to shift their thinking about plastic as waste to a commodity, for communities to increase investment in our local recycling infrastructure, and for governments to craft sound policies to increase the supply of cost-effective, and high-quality, food-grade recycled content.
The first step, however, is to recognize that PET plastic should not be single-use. It is a valuable resource that, if recycled properly, can be used to create new bottles again and again. By demonstrating that in our own business, and supporting our suppliers through long-term contracts, we are hoping to prove that we can achieve a more circular economy, not 10 years from now, but today.
Fernando Mercé is president and CEO of Nestlé Waters North America.
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