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OM in the News: Plastic Water Bottles Threaten a Crisis

December 15, 2018

“Bottled water, which recently dethroned soda as America’s most popular beverage, is facing a crisis,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 13, 2018). A consumer backlash against disposable plastic plus new government mandates and bans in many stores have bottled-water makers scrambling to find alternatives.

Workers sort plastic bottles at a Swiss recycling facility

Evian this year pledged to make all its plastic bottles entirely from recycled plastic by 2025, up from 30% today. It hopes the move will help it regain market share and win over plastic detractors who are already pressuring the makers of straws, bags and coffee cups. There’s a big problem. The industry has tried and failed for years to make a better bottle. (A decade ago, for example, Evian pledged to use 50% recycled plastic in its water bottles by 2009. Nestlé’s plastic water bottles use just 7% recycled material in the U.S., while Coca-Cola’s use 10%, and Pepsi uses 9%.)

Existing recycling technology needs clean, clear plastic to make new water bottles, but low recycling rates and a lack of infrastructure have stymied supply. Danone, Evian’s parent company, is betting its reputation on a new technology that turns old plastic from things like dirty carpets and ketchup bottles into plastic suitable for new water bottles. Less than a third of plastic bottles sold in the U.S. are  now collected for recycling, with less than 1% processed into food-grade plastic. The bottled-water industry says using more recycled plastic in bottles will incentivize the collection of old bottles by giving them value. Companies are launching new marketing campaigns, employing more waste pickers and backing new bottle deposit schemes to encourage recycling.

Bottled-water sales have boomed in recent decades amid safety fears about tap water and a shift away from sugary drinks. Between 1994 and 2017, U.S. consumption soared 284% to nearly 42 gallons a year per person. Recently, images of bottles overflowing landfills and threatening sea life have soured consumers. Plastic drink bottles are the 3rd most common type of item found washed up on shorelines—behind cigarette butts and food wrappers.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. How is this a triple bottom line issue (people, planet, profit)?
  2. What other consumer products are facing similar backlash crises?
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