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By Saabira Chaudhuri | Photographs by Zach Gibson for The Wall Street Journal
Glassmakers are betting the backlash against single-use plastics can stem a decadeslong decline in the use of their bottles and jars. First they have to boost poor glass-recycling rates that undercut the material's environmental pitch.
Once the packaging kingpin for milk, ketchup, beer and soft drinks, glass has been muscled aside by lighter, unbreakable materials such as plastic and aluminum. Today, just 1% of U.S. soda comes in glass bottles, down from nearly 58% in 1975, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a consulting firm. Over the same period, plastic jumped to 32.5% from nothing.
Now, mounting concern about the environmental impacts of single-use plastic is dampening its appeal for some consumers. That is prompting consumer-goods companies like Nestlé SA, PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever PLC to explore refillable packaging and alternative materials.
Glassmakers see this as an opportunity to win back customers. A recent industry-funded marketing campaign in Europe saw grocery-store customers thanked by on-screen dolphins for helping the oceans when they scanned items packaged in glass.
"It's hard for us to ignore the images borne into our minds of trillions of plastic packages floating around the Pacific Ocean," Andres Alberto Lopez, chief executive of O-I Glass Inc., told investors last year. "Glass represents a wonderful alternative."
The U.S.'s first new glass container plant in 12 years, a $123 million facility, is being built by Arglass Yamamura LLC in Georgia. Perrysburg, Ohio-based O-I, the world's biggest maker of glass containers, is investing more than $60 million to build a new furnace at its French plant, its first such expansion in the region in two decades. Glassmakers also are investing in new technology to quickly swap colors and molds in a bid to woo craft brewers and small brands, in a break from the long production runs that have dominated the industry to date.
Glassmakers say their products -- made from sand -- are all-natural, endlessly recyclable and can be refilled many times. Glass is the only widely used food packaging material that the Food and Drug Administration deems "generally recognized as safe," meaning it doesn't need premarket approval. It also offers a longer shelf life for many food and drink products because it is less permeable than plastic, said Sokhna Gueye, Nestlé's plastics sustainability manager.
But there are cracks in the glass industry's sustainability story, particularly in the U.S. Glass containers often break and are heavy to transport, leading to increased fuel use. Efforts to bring back refillable glass containers for beer, soda and milk have remained niche. And most important, about two thirds of glass containers aren't recycled in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Recycling them often isn't cost-effective, processors say. That is because most American households throw glass containers in the same recycling bin with paper and plastic, where it breaks and is hard to separate. Broken glass also rips up conveyor belts at sorting facilities and costs more to transport to increasingly faraway glass plants. The number of glass-container plants in the U.S. has fallen 65% since 1983 as demand for soda bottles has dropped.
"For a long time there was the thought glass was being recycled, but in reality it was not," said Erik Grabowsky, head of solid waste for Arlington, Va., one of a rising number of places that no longer offers curbside collection of glass. The county's glass containers had long ended up in landfills because they weren't clean enough for recyclers to buy, Mr. Grabowsky said.
In response, glassmakers are attempting to boost recycling rates by funding separate glass-collection programs in areas that lack the infrastructure. O-I and Mt. Pleasant, Pa.-based recycler CAP Glass sponsored pop-up recycling events for Pittsburgh residents to drop off glass containers after the city's residential waste contractor said it would no longer accept them. The industry recently set up a foundation to improve recycling infrastructure.
Arlington and other counties in Northern Virginia last year began rolling out separate purple bins for glass. Local officials say the program has proved popular, with some of the glass collected being used by Strategic Materials Inc. -- the U.S.'s biggest glass-container recycler -- to make new bottles. But getting big volumes remains a challenge, recyclers say.
Despite industry efforts, the share of new U.S. drink launches packaged in glass last year fell to 25% from 37% in 2015, according to research firm Mintel. "There is an opportunity to capitalize on the backlash against single-use plastics, but it is very hard," said Nipesh Shah, CEO of Tampa-based Anchor Glass Container Corp. "The first part is preventing the conversion from glass to plastics."
One hope for glassmakers is that consumer interest will revive refillable glass containers. The carbon footprint of single-use glass is a turnoff for companies like PepsiCo, said its head of sustainability, Simon Lowden. A 0.75 liter glass bottle must be used three times to bring its carbon footprint in line with that of a half-liter plastic bottle, according to a study in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
Coca-Cola Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are among companies participating in a trial called Loop through which they sell products like Tropicana orange juice and Hellmann's mayonnaise in containers designed to be returned, cleaned and refilled. Of the 300 products included in that trial, more than half are packaged in glass.
"When a glass bottle is refilled it's very attractive from a carbon footprint standpoint," said Ben Jordan, senior director of environmental policy for Coca-Cola. "When it's not, it's at the other end of the spectrum."
Write to Saabira Chaudhuri at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 24, 2020 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
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