Plastic waste is inundating urban, rural and wilderness landscapes and inland waterways, as well as our ocean waters. Besides the visual blight, plastic waste kills, seriously injures or damages wildlife and domesticated animals. The slow degradation of synthetic plastics, moreover, releases a mix of toxic chemicals into our atmosphere, land and waters, poisoning the natural ecosystems and resources that form the foundation of our economy and society.
The average American tosses away some 185 pounds of plastic per year, an estimated 50 percent of which is used only once before being discarded. Overall, the recycling rate for plastics in the U.S. is around 42 percent, a rate that public- and private-sector organizations are working to raise, both for self-serving, as well as more altruistic, motivations.
Late last week, PepsiCo and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced the launch of “Recycle for Nature,” a five-year partnership that will see the two organizations place recycling bins at gas stations and convenience stores across the U.S. In addition to reducing plastic waste by spurring more recycling, the initiative aims to save and restore 1 billion gallons per year of drinking water sourced from five of the most heavily populated and scenic U.S. waterways, PepsiCo and TNC explain in a press release.
Plastics, recycling and drinking water
Up the supply chain from store shelves, manufacturing plastics takes a heavy toll on ecosystems and human health, as well as long-term socioeconomic development potential. The total natural capital cost of plastic use in the consumer goods industry – a measure of the loss or degradation of natural resources and ecosystems – exceeds $75 billion annually, according to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report.
Despite the massive volume and triple-bottom-line impacts of plastic products produced today, businesses don’t factor the post-use costs of plastic products into their product development plans. Furthermore, the total economic, social and ecological costs of used plastics traditionally aren’t factored into businesses’ operations, accounts or performance. That’s gradually changing as awareness of the ubiquity of plastic waste and the seriousness of the threats its rapid rise poses.
Environmental organizations such as TNC – the world’s largest environmental conservation organization – have been at the forefront when it comes to raising public awareness and focusing attention on the threats and risks associated with escalating levels of plastic waste. Businesses have become increasingly aware of the costs resource scarcity and degradation have on their activities, as well as on the size and growth potential of the consumer goods market.
Besides searching for ecologically-friendly alternatives, entrepreneurs and well-established businesses alike are increasingly recognizing the potential value of recycling or reusing plastic waste. Facing chronic shortages of recycled materials for their business processes, manufacturers in the Southeast are working to boost recycling rates throughout the region through the Southeast Recycling Development Council (SERDC).
PepsiCo-TNC’s “Recycle for Nature” is an example of how the climate between environmental organizations and multinational businesses has shifted from one characterized by antagonism toward one of cooperation. Through the program, the partners hope to drive the U.S. beverage container recycling rate above 50 percent by 2018 from the current 42 percent as measured by the American Beverage Association.
The Recycle for Nature partnership
The project is part of PepsiCo’s collaboration with Walmart to increase recycling and investment in the Closed Loop Fund, a program that provides financing to municipalities and other organizations that aim to provide greater public access to recycling “when an where they need it.”
Conducting a national survey, PepsiCo found that a lack of recycling bins at retail outlets may well be constraining the U.S. recycling rate. Away from home, recycling bins are available just 12 percent of the time. Moreover, 81 percent of Americans said they would recycle more beverage containers, according to PepsiCo’s national survey results.
“Most consumers want to recycle when they’re away from home – there just aren’t enough convenient places to do it,” PepsiCo Americas Beverages CEO Al Carey was quoted in the press release.
“This is a huge opportunity that has been largely unaddressed until now. The easier we can make it to recycle, the more likely people are to recycle; and by giving consumers the added incentive of helping protect our watersheds, we can make an impact.”
Protecting drinking water by recycling plastic
Besides turning what would be plastic waste pollution into new products, “Recycle for Nature” can also help protect U.S. drinking water sources in five key locations “that supply water to more than 35 million people through some of the nation’s most populated and beautiful waterways,” the partners highlight. These are the:
- Colorado River;
- Denver’s Front Range forests;
- Arizona’s Verde River;
- Kings River in northwest Arkansas; and
- North Carolina’s Cape Fear River.
Aiming to save and restore 1 billion gallons of water per year from these waterways over a five-year period, “PepsiCo [will] make an additional annual donation to TNC for every one-point increase in the U.S. beverage container recycling rate.” That could yield as much as $1 million per year for the program over its five-year term.
PepsiCo and TNC intend to begin by expanding a pilot program that PepsiCo has been running in collaboration with Kum & Go convenience stores and gas stations in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The goal is to increase the number of recycling bins in the area 10-fold over the near-term. PepsiCo will also work jointly with TNC to “help raise awareness of recycling and increase recycling efforts in their local communities.” TNC is present in all 50 states and counts over 1 million people as members.
For its own part, PepsiCo has reduced water use at its production plants over 20 percent per unit since 2006. Joining with other organizations, it has also provided access to clean, safe drinking water for 3 million people around the world. Awarded the Stockholm Industry Water Award and the U.S. Water Prize in 2012, PepsiCo in 2013 announced it would provide access to clean drinking water to an another 3 million people over the ensuing three years.