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Plastics recycling in the U.S. is a mess. “Recyclable” plastic is overwhelmingly burned, landfilled, or ends up polluting the environment. Through it all, one plastic has managed to maintain a relatively neutral PR image: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is used to make almost all plasticbeverage bottles in the world. PET is also among the most successfully recycled plastics: Nearly 30 percent of plastic bottles are recycled in the U.S., which, while nothing to write home about, is much better than any other plastic.
Many Coca-Cola products across the U.S. now proudly display their 100 percent recycled content labels and ask consumers to recycle them again. In the past months, two beverage behemoths have been showered with media attention for their big announcements about plastic bottle recycling. Sprite, a Coca-Cola brand, dominated food and beverage news and social media for switching from green to clear bottles to improve the market for clear bottle-to-bottle recycling. By doing so, Coca-Cola added to its very public push to brand its products as greener and better for the environment. Not to be outdone, Pepsi followed with an announcement of its own that the company would massively expand its recycling capacity in the U.S.
While we welcome these moves made by influential beverage brands in the global fight against pollution and plastic waste, those of us who have been critically evaluating the plastics industries for years are left asking ourselves, yet again: How much longer are we going to ignore all the health problems and social injustices associated with plastics that occur before they become trash?
Most scrutiny and criticism surrounding plastics stems from what happens after products are used and tossed, but the problem starts much, much sooner. Nearly all PET is made from fossil fuels, which not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but also require many refining and chemical processing steps to get from crude oil and fossil gas pulled from the ground to clear, shiny plastic bottles.
Along the way, petrochemicals are converted into other chemical compounds (many of which are also toxic), releasing chemical waste into air, water, and the ground. In the U.S., most petrochemical plants involved in plastics production are located near lower-income people and communities of color, which are already overburdened with industrial air, water, and soil pollution.
That nice, clear bottle the beverage industry wants you to feel good about recycling? Just making those bottles harms air and water quality along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana and in the Carolinas. PET plastic production in the U.S. releases more of the cancer-causing chemicals 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide into the environment than any other industry, according to the U..S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2021 Toxics Release Inventory.
And it doesn’t stop with communities near manufacturing plants. Many of the chemicals used to make PET remain in the final plastic product and can migrate from packaging into food and beverages. For example, manufacturing PET usually requires an antimony-based catalyst, which speeds up the final chemical reaction. Some of this catalyst remains in the plastic and is known to leach out of packaging, exposing consumers. Chronic antimony exposure increases lifetime risk of liver and heart disease and cancer.
We conducted an independent analysis of 20 PET bottled beverages and found that 40 percent of the samples—including products from Pepsi and Coca-Cola—exceeded the California Public Health Goal for antimony in drinking water. Cobalt, an additive that improves the clarity of bottles but is toxic to the nervous system, thyroid, and heart, also turned up in 40 percent of the sampled beverages.
Despite years of scientific evidence documenting toxic chemical migration from bottles, and our recent efforts to engage with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to encourage them to seek safer, less-toxic alternatives to antimony and cobalt, neither company has made commitments to fix these small parts of the PET manufacturing process that may harm their consumers.
Antimony and cobalt are far from the only toxic chemicals that make their way from PET plastics into the products we eat and drink. One scientific review documented 150 chemicals that are released from plastic bottles into food and beverages. Recycling PET likely makes these problems even worse; other studies suggest that recycling plastics is effectively recycling toxic chemicals as well. And in some cases, those chemicals can build up as plastic is repeatedly recycled.
Even making millions of green bottles clear and expanding recycling facilities will not fix that.
What should be done about all of this? For one, big beverage companies need to take more than baby steps that barely scratch the surface of the plastics problem. They could take immediate action to require their suppliers to eliminate cancer-causing additives from the plastic used for bottles. Safer alternatives are widely available.
Second, we must pay real attention to the health and injustice impacts from both virgin and recycled plastics on workers, fence line communities, and consumers throughout their lifecycle.
And, most importantly, we need to recognize that apart from very limited essential uses, such as medical treatment, many plastics just aren’t necessary. The food and beverage industry should invest in safer, less toxic, and more sustainable alternatives such as reusable and refillable container systems. Recycling never was—and never will be—the only answer to the tangled mess of environmental and health impacts created by petrochemical plastics.
It’s not too late to envision a safer future.
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