A Tale of Two Plastic Bottles at LOHAS Forum

More articles on the controversy surrounding bottled water can be found here!

During an information-sharing panel at the LOHAS Forum about the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf, many attendees had one simple question: what could they do to help? Charles Hambleton, producer of the documentary The Cove, suggested that anyone wanting to improve the crisis at a systemic level forswear the ubiquitous single-use plastic bottle.

Great idea. And good luck. As attendees we were in fact supplied with, guess what, single-use plastic bottles. But these aren’t just any single-use plastic bottles. These are Naya water bottles, which are made with 100 percent recycled PET. No virgin oil goes into the bottle, Sean Surkis, Naya’s vice president of sales and marketing, later assured me.

Still, it seemed a wasteful option to me, as I self-righteously filled my Klean Kanteen at a water fountain in the hotel lobby. After all, there was plenty of embedded energy in each Naya bottle due to its transportation alone. (Though, Surkis also assured me that the recycling process that Naya employs is not more energy-intensive than creating PET out of virgin stock, and that most of the energy Naya uses in its Montreal facility is powered by hydro.)

That said, consumers still want bottled water. And if they’re going to buy it, then it seems logical that it be served up in a recycled plastic bottle. It still requires petroleum, but not as much as not as directly as, say, a bottle of Dasani or Coke, even if it’s served up in Coca-Cola’s new PlantBottle. Despite being made, in part, from non-petroleum sources, those bottles clearly have a more direct link to the spill in the Gulf because they create ongoing demand for oil. And oil spills. And when it does, it kills.  A company as big and influential as Coca-Cola has a tremendous opportunity here to send a message about our addiction to oil (never mind, for the moment, our addiction to sugar) by taking the lead from Naya and breaking that direct link to fresh petroleum.

And when I asked Tom LaForge, Coca-Cola’s global director of human and cultural insights, why his company uses only 25 percent (by his description — the bottle itself says “up to 30″ percent) of this plant-based alternative in its PlantBottle PET bottles, he explained that anything over that percentage causes impurities in the PET recycling stream. I’ve heard similar complaints from people in the recycling industry. Indeed, plant-based bottles and today’s recycling systems seem to mix as well as oil and water, since the alternative plastics disrupt existing processes and lead to great waste of plastic, as recyclers turn away bales of “corrupted” PET. But the bigger question is: why not fix that problem?

Naya’s answer has been to collect petroleum-based bottles for recycling — carefully selecting them for color and other qualities that can muck up the process — and design a way to turn PET bottles back into PET bottles. This part is also unique, as most PET is not actually recycled but is instead downcycled into other products, from carpet to fleece to building material. Or soccer jerseys.

Coca-Cola’s answers could be to just stop using plastic bottles as a means of reducing some of the global demand for oil. Aluminum is an obvious alternative. It’s made relatively cleanly, and can be fully recycled. It’s also lighter than glass. So why not push for more aluminum? LaForge’s volley: not everyone likes to drink out of cans. He said some consumers say the products taste metallic.

That’s interesting, I thought to myself, as I sipped from my metallic water bottle. But you’re Coca-Cola. You hold in your hands a tremendous amount of consumer loyalty. If you decide to move away from plastic and toward more cans, your drinkers will move with you.

To me, this whole metallic taste excuse just doesn’t hold water. And it certainly won’t do anything to reduce our need for oil.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.