During a recent visit to Germany, I picked up a bottle of soda from an airport stand. It looked a bit unusual. While the normal polyethylene terephthalate logo with the number one in the recycling triangle resin code on the bottom assured me this was indeed a regular plastic bottle, I could not help but feel some subtle difference. Firstly the bottle was of particularly sturdy plastic seemingly designed to handle almost any external turbulence and internal acidity rather natural for carbonated colas and the like. The label was as expected and so was taste, carbonation and the sugar-caffeine rush. What was less evident were the bruises and scars on the bottle bottom and sides. It certainly appeared like someone tried to stock the place and instead of using crates, they went for cardboard boxes which ripped halfway down the road and the bottles were scratched and sustained many transportation damages. That immediately made me feel uncomfortable and I went back to the same fridge I got the bottle from – all its other counterparts had comparable or even more severe damage on their outside.
It turns out that these bottles are really reused and after they are no longer fit for active duty, they are taken to a recycling station to be reborn again with a shiny and glossy appearance. There recently was a study claiming that every beverage can in the US has been re-manufactured at least seven times – as in used, melted and reused. What they do in Europe might be even more interesting. Assuming all safety precautions are met and sanitation level is reached via safe chemicals, reuse of plastic bottles is well justified. It is even more so in offices. All beverages are neatly delivered in crates and then stocked up in fridges or store rooms. Once a bottle is done, it goes right back in its crate only without its liquid content. When the vendors come in to restock, they pick up the empty crates and bottles and restock with full ones.
This system appears to beat any container deposit legislation. It is particularly useful for departmental and institutional plastic bottle use. These can be easily regulated and plastics collected instead of the painful and expensive curbside collection in place by most waste management companies. Container deposit legislation is aimed at reducing highway, city etc. litter by simply refunding the deposit paid on bottles at times of purchase. The German system might arguably be more efficient and the only secret ingredient here is discipline and management buy-in. There might even be tax write off incentives… The only sad fact here is that at this time this recycling pattern is not quite achievable by the paper and packaging industry. Paper and cardboard boxes are too varied in their sizes and shapes – expecting your courier or vendor stocker to pick up your used paper boxes might require even stricter discipline and be unreasonable in cost. Let’s see what the next natural step is in addressing the piles of corrugated fiberboard loaded on to be recycled.
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