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Water Bottles Are Creating a Flood of Waste

The state launches a campaign urging Californians to recycle the plastic containers.

May 28, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

The health-conscious Californians who drink bottled water seemingly by the barrel are unwittingly contributing to an avalanche of wasted plastic that is clogging up landfills and contributing to air pollution, according to state officials.

In response, the California Department of Conservation is launching an awareness campaign this week aimed at coaxing consumers through public service messages to recycle the bottles instead of putting them in the trash.

"The sight of a water bottle in someone's hand has become as common as a cell phone," said Darryl Young, the department's director. "In California, one is usually in the right, and the other is in the left. What people don't realize is that these water bottles are recyclable and have detrimental environmental impacts if thrown in the trash."

Bottled water -- particularly in small, travel-size plastic containers -- is becoming a bigger part of the beverage market, as more Americans reach for something healthier than soda.

But according to a new state report, only 16% of the plastic water bottles are being recycled in California, even though consumers can now turn them in for a cash refund, as they can with glass bottles and aluminum cans. In Los Angeles, people can put the bottles in the blue waste containers designated for recyclable materials.

All of those little bottles are adding up to a pretty big environmental nuisance. Nearly 3 million bottles are going into the trash every day. That adds up to more than 1 billion plastic water bottles a year, or enough to make 74 million square feet of carpet or 16 million sweaters, the report found. Recycled plastic can be turned into fibers for making carpet or clothing.

If the problem continues, enough water bottles will be thrown in the state's trash dumps over the next five years to create a two-lane, 6-inch-deep highway of plastic along the entire California coast, the report concluded.

Besides representing a lost recycling opportunity, the discarded bottles pose a problem for the state's trash dumps. If they are not diverted from the trash stream, they take up needed space in landfills. If they are incinerated with regular trash, they melt and let off toxic fumes that worsen air pollution.

In 1999, 10% of beverages sold were in plastic bottles. In 2001, the most recent year for which data are available, the number had jumped to 24%.

Of the more than 4 billion plastic bottles sold in California in 2001, only 36% were recycled, a nearly 50% decline from two years earlier. State officials blame the decline largely on water bottles.

Responding to concerns from Californians Against Waste and others that people need a greater incentive to recycle, two state lawmakers are sponsoring legislation to double the refund on plastic water bottles, which is currently 2.5 cents for bottles of less than 24 ounces and 5 cents for larger bottles. But the bill by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) requires a two-thirds vote and faces an uncertain future.

California's recycling record is important to some beverage manufacturers. Coca-Cola, which produces the popular Dasani brand of water, has pledged to use 10% recycled plastic in all of its water bottles by 2005. State officials said Tuesday that without increased recycling, companies may not be able to meet their goals. But a company spokesman said Coca-Cola is already using 10% plastic waste in 80% of its water bottles and will have no problem reaching its goal.

For beverage recyclers, the challenge is convincing the public that turning over the plastic bottles is important as plastic continues to replace glass and metal containers.

"In Los Angeles, you may be getting a lot, because Angelenos recycle. But most of the plastic water bottles sold are not coming back," said Joe Massey, the director of the Coalition of Independent Recyclers, which represents about 100 businesses statewide. State officials "should be using whatever money they need to get the word out, because this is important for the future of recycling."

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