When the University signed a contract with Coca-Cola in 1996, campus consumers’ cola choices were narrowed down: cans or bottles.
The elephant-sized hill of compressed plastic bottles at the University’s recycling center on Como Avenue in Minneapolis indicates that many choose bottles. Made with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, the bottles contain no recycled materials.
“Right now, from what we get, it looks to be about 40 percent bottles and 60 percent cans,” said Dana Donatucci, recycling coordinator at the University’s recycling center.
And the 14-ton hill of plastic bottles might not be going anywhere soon, because the market for used PET plastic has crashed, Donatucci said.
“It took a nose dive in the fall,” Donatucci said.
At the same time, production of single-serve plastic bottles in the United States increased by 25 percent in 1997, according to the Container Recycling Institute. As a result, the rate of discarded PET bottles has mushroomed. Since 1995, plastic waste has risen by more than 50 percent, according to the institute’s statistics.
Coke is responsible for the distribution of 45 percent of all PET soda bottles in the world, according to the Grass Roots Network, a recycling advocacy group.
Winona County, located in the southeast corner of Minnesota, is one of several around the country to campaign to persuade Coca-Cola to buy back and recycle its bottles.
Donatucci agrees with Winona County’s resolution.
“You have to buy recycled stuff to keep recycling working,” he said.
In fact, “buying recycled” was the theme of this year’s National Recycling Day on Nov. 15, which Coke helped sponsor.
While Donatucci said he finds that ironic, Coke seems to recognize no internal inconsistencies, says Kristin Paulin, a student recycling coordinator at the Como recycling center.
“It’s funny. The other day, I was getting a soda for my class, and I saw some vendors loading plastic bottles,” Paulin said. “I told them those bottles were environmentally bad, and they got defensive, saying I should get my information right.”
The vendors told her the recycled material from the bottles could be used to make decks and benches, she said.
Another common use is clothing, Donatucci said.
“PET is basically polyester, and polyester is in clothing. In fact, China was purchasing a lot of it a few years back when they had a low output of cotton,” he said.
Lately, however, China’s cotton output has been steady, so they haven’t needed much PET plastic.
As industries turn away from using recycled PET and its production increases, Donatucci said Coca-Cola might be feeding plastic bottles into the market faster than they can be bought.
“I don’t know why they don’t recycle,” said Paulin. “I think they are just opposed to making changes, because they do it in other countries, and it doesn’t seem to affect them.”
Coke recycles and sells refillable bottles in countries where doing so is mandated by law, like Switzerland, Germany and Australia.
In 1997, officials from Coke said using recycled materials slowed down the process of making bottles, and cost too much money. But Donatucci says recycling would be a good public relations move for Coke, and it would only cost about $8 million.
In the meantime, Coke will continue to pile on the plastic at the University’s recycling center. Since the contract was signed, Como recycling’s PET plastic intake has increased tenfold.