South Lake Tahoe should promote recycling, not banning plastic water bottles (Opinion)

Plastic Recycling Corporation of California / Guest column

For those who believe our society should be doing more to recycle plastic bottles, a concerning issue is developing in the city of South Lake Tahoe. Rather than encouraging more recycling through education and facilitating collection with convenient recycling bins and redemption centers, South Lake Tahoe is looking to ban the sale of water in plastic bottles of less than a gallon.

Why is this concerning? According to Cal Recycle (the division of the California Resources Agency that manages the bottle bill) California currently has a recycling rate for plastic bottles of about 70%. That’s pretty good, but it could be a whole lot better with very little effort. Unfortunately, while the ban will have minimal effect on the total number of plastic bottles consumed, it sends clear and discouraging messages that could likely lower the recycling rate. 

Such a ban signals a complete disinterest in recycling. In fact, the ban suggests that the city has lost all faith in the recycling process and in people’s willingness to participate. They essentially say, “We don’t care about recycling, nor do we feel the need to encourage or help recycling and therefore, we will not allow anyone to purchase bottled water, even though the bottles are 100% recyclable.”

Many people don’t realize that California has a bottle bill. This means that consumers pay a nickel (or a dime for large bottles) for every beverage sold in aluminum cans, glass bottles or plastic bottles. About 70% of California’s plastic water bottles are redeemed for recycling returning those nickels and dimes to consumers (or curbside operators). These are some of the highest recycling numbers in the nation, but it needs to be much higher. Part of the reason that the redemption rate isn’t higher is that too many consumers either do not know that the bottles are recyclable (and being recycled), or it’s too complicated to redeem them. 

Not only are almost all plastic beverage containers 100% recyclable, but many of them are being turned back into new bottles. Some are turned into other products like plastic clamshells or other types of food containers. 

The recycling industry has grown significantly in California and around the country. Recyclers have been working with bottle manufacturers for decades to encourage best practices in bottle manufacturing to ensure that the bottles are as easy as possible to recycle. New technologies have made recycling simpler and more efficient, but there has been a huge chicken-and-egg style dilemma. Building a one hundred-million-dollar recycling plant doesn’t make sense without a strong stream of bottles to recycle. The six recycling plants currently in business around California all need more used plastic bottles to stay in business – and hopefully grow.

Newly passed legislation in California (AB 793) mandates that by 2030, all plastic bottles will be required to contain at least 50% recycled content. This legislation was supported by practically every environmental group in California, as well as the bottle and beverage manufacturers, and of course, the recycling industry. The mandate means that demand for used plastic bottles is higher than ever. 

A symbolic ban of 100% recyclable plastic water bottles does nothing to help meet that demand, it does nothing to educate consumers about recycling and it does nothing to capture more bottles so that we can increase the recycling rate to as close to 100% as possible. Beverage container recycling in California works! And eliminating the sale of water in a plastic bottle will deprive people of the choice of water, leaving only soda or other sugar drinks available. Consumers should have the right to choose whether to make that purchase, not the five members of the City Council.

What cities like South Lake Tahoe can do to make a difference is encourage redemption centers so that people have safe, clean, and practical places to turn their bottles in for refunds. Many redemption center operators feel stifled by cities that put too much bureaucracy in the way. Cities can also increase the number of recycle bins in high traffic areas. Of course, having an information campaign in place to let people know how important recycling is can also help. 

It’s good that the elected members of the South Lake Tahoe City Council are serious about reducing plastic waste. It’s good that beverage bottles are 100% recyclable, that the recycling industry in California is growing, and that the state of California has a system that promotes a closed loop circular economy approach to recycling plastic bottles. It would be great if South Lake Tahoe could seek out ways to contribute to all that good, rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. 

Please recycle.

Plastic Recycling Corporation of California is a nonprofit in California created in 1987 to promote the reclamation and recycling of PET beverage containers. Its members include PET bottle manufacturers and soft drink, bottled water and other CRV beverage producers serving California consumers.

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