MEDIA RELEASE

140 BILLION DRINKS CONTAINERS WASTED NATIONALLY EVERY YEAR

29 April 2021

Elizabeth Balkan elizabeth.balkan@reloopplatform.org

Published Reloop [1] data [2] shows that more than 140 billion empty drinks containers – glass bottles, PET plastic bottles and metal cans – were wasted [3] across the United States in 2019.

  • over 74 billion were PET bottles, the plastic commonly used for water and soft drinks
  • over 50 billion were cans
  • almost 15 billion were glass bottles

Americans buy more drinks per capita each year than any other population in this dataset, around 13% higher per capita than second-placed Belgium, but this only explains a small proportion of the markedly higher rate of wastage.

That annual total is the equivalent of more than 1.5 million containers wasted every day since the Declaration of Independence, and more than enough to cover every inch of the US Interstate Highway system [5].

426 containers were wasted per person in the country over 2019 [4], 227 of which were PET plastic. This is more than twice the rate seen in Hungary, the second worst-performing country in this dataset, where 186 containers were wasted per person. At the other end of the scale, Germany, which has a strong refillable sector and a national container deposit law, wasted just 10 containers per person over 2017, more than 97% fewer than America [6].

These numbers are conservative, given the sales dataset used does not include wine, spirits, milk, pouches or cartons. The calculation also uses the EPA’s 2017 glass recycling rate of 38.9%, but the Container Recycling Institute estimates the real number is as low as 27%. Taking account of these changes would bring the estimated wastage per person up to between 550 and 600.

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, [7] introduced in March 2021, would introduce a national container deposit law for drinks containers of any material. Reloop are also able to calculate what effect such legislation would have on the wastage levels set out above. 10 states already have container deposit laws, with Oregon’s and Michigan’s deposit return systems being the best performing, delivering return rates comparable to the more modern European systems. Michigan achieves a 90% return rate, while the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, which handles the bulk of containers in Oregon, saw a rate of 90.8% in 2019 [8], similar to the median rates in national deposit systems in Europe.

Using that data, Reloop is able to estimate the overall reduction in wastage if the whole of the United States had adopted a system which achieved a 90% return rate, i.e. a national system as efficient as Oregon and Michigan. The wastage figure would fall to just over 22 billion drinks containers wasted annually from 140 billion. Per capita wastage would fall from 426, more than one container per person per day, to 67, about one and a quarter a week.

Reducing wastage also reduces emissions, a key factor ahead of the COP26 climate conference later this year in Glasgow, Scotland. In carbon terms, using the WARM model, adopting that nation-wide deposit system would reduce emissions by around 7.9 MtCO2e, greater than the 2019 national emissions of Uruguay. It would also be equivalent to taking more than 1.7 million passenger vehicles off America’s roads for a year [9].

Elizabeth Balkan, Director of Reloop Americas, said:

“Cans and bottles, whether plastic or glass, are valuable resources, and every time those materials are not recycled or reused it increases the demand for virgin materials. Now the real scale of these resources wasted across the United States can be estimated, and the numbers are gargantuan: 140 billion containers a year, for an average of 426 per person. Even that startling number will be a clear underestimate, given the known limitations of this dataset.

“This wasteful approach means millions of tonnes of unnecessary climate emissions, substantial unnecessary cleanup costs for city, county and state governments, and ecological effects that will last decades. One worthwhile measure to reduce waste is at hand, though: a nationwide deposit on drinks cans and bottles, which forms part of legislative proposals already under consideration. This approach, used already in ten states and common in Europe, would reduce wasted cans and bottles here by 84%, and it is an option Congress should now be taking very seriously.”

ENDS

NOTES

  1. Reloop is an international non-profit organisation that brings together industry, government and NGOs into a broad network that seeks to bring about positive change at all levels of resource and waste policy.

https://www.reloopplatform.org/

 

  1. The datasets used include proprietory sales information purchased from GlobalData, which Reloop is unable to publish directly: however, publication of information which combines that data with other datasets, e.g. recycling rates, is permitted. The sales data available covers 93 countries, including all G20 countries, although recycling data is only available for a subset of 34 countries, including America, Canada, most of Europe, plus PET-only information for some Asian countries. More information about GlobalData is available here:

https://www.globaldata.com/

 

  1. Wasted in this context means not reused or recycled, so this figure covers containers littered in American towns, cities and wild spaces, lost into rivers and oceans, landfilled, or incinerated.
  1. This is based on the following information:

Sales 2019 figure from GlobalData.

PET recycling rate (2019) from NAPCOR.

https://napcor.com/news/4970-2/

 

Aluminum recycling rate (2019) from the Aluminum Association.

https://www.aluminum.org/sites/default/files/KPI_Report_Dec2020.pdf

 

Glass recycling rate (2018) from the EPA.

https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2021-01/documents/2018_tables_and_figures_dec_2020_fnl_508.pdf

 

  1. Based on 75.4 Thousand Kilometers of US interstate at 4 lanes of 3.7 meters wide and an average diameter of 6cm/container.

 

  1. The Hungary and Germany data is from 2017 rather than 2019: this is the most recent information held.

 

  1. Recent coverage of these proposals are here:

https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/25/green-groups-plastic-makers-recycling-push-477975

 

The proposed legislation is available here:

https://www.merkley.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/21.03.24%20BFFPP%20Text.pdf

 

  1. Data from:

https://www.obrc.com/Content/Reports/OBRC%20Annual%20Report%202019.PDF

 

  1. Using information from OurWorldInData, edited by researchers at Oxford University.

https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions

 

The second comparison uses the EPA calculator:

https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator