Recycling versus refilling of PET bottles: an environmental comparison

Most soft drinks and mineral waters are now sold in returnable 1.5 litre PET bottles with a deposit. In the Netherlands this is the agreed policy up to 2006, as laid down in the 3rd Voluntary Agreement on Packaging. The EU recently raised objections to member states obliging manufacturers to refill soft drinks bottles, as this is deemed to distort the market. The soft drinks industry responded by teaming up with the government to develop an alternative packaging strategy for soft drinks and mineral waters, i.e. without compulsory refilling, which is up to approximately the same environmental standards as the current system.

Against this background CE was commissioned by the industry to compare the environmental impact of three different scenarios. As a reference the current system was taken: refillable bottles with a deposit for soft drinks and mineral waters, small one-way bottles for these drinks and one-way bottles for other drinks, too.
Secondly, an alternative proposed by the industry was examined, embracing a switch, in 2006, from 1.5 litre returnable bottles for soft drinks and waters to one-way recyclable bottles that would still be returned to the supermarket for the deposit. The resultant additional environmental impact would be compensated by concurrent collection of small bottles for recycling plus use of recycled PET in these bottles. In 2010 the industry envisages switching to a uniform collect-and-recycle system for all PET bottles, large and small, with continued use of recyclate.

Thirdly, the possibility was considered of industry and government failing to reach agreement, implying a choice for compulsory deposits on both large and small PET bottles.

The main conclusion of the study is that the industry alternative, the reference system with refillable bottles and the alternative of bottles with a compulsory deposit all score similarly in environmental terms, provided, in the industry system, that sufficient bottles are collected and sufficient recyclate is used. This conclusion was supported by the supervisory committee (NFI for the industry; Stichting Natuur en Milieu for environmental NGOs; ministries of environment and food and agriculture) as well as reviewer IVAM.

Sensitivity analysis showed that the differences between the three scenarios are affected little by variations in such parameters as bottle weight, number of reuse cycles or efficiency of waste processing. However, they are significantly affected by collection and recycling percentages as well as by the percentage of recyclate per bottle.


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