How to reduce plastic pollution by billions of bottles, in just one word: Refillables | Oceana
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Empty bottles

Refillable glass bottles can be reused up to 50 times.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Room 76

If you've ever watched the 1967 film The Graduate, you may recall the scene where the newly minted and confused college graduate Benjamin Braddock is pulled aside by Mr. McGuire, a friend of Benjamin's parents. Mr. McGuire then encourages Benjamin to enter a rapidly growing industry, delivering one of the movie's most memorable lines: “I just want to say one word to you: Plastics.”

Benjamin was further befuddled by this cryptic advice, but Mr. McGuire’s prediction about plastics flooding Ben’s life – and all of our lives – was apt.

To understand the sweeping impact of plastics, we need look no further than the beverage sector. Plastic bottles are being manufactured on an almost unfathomable scale, with 445 billion liters of beverages, packaged in PET bottles, being made and sold annually. Of that amount, 21 to 34 billion bottles – after being thrown away – enter the ocean each year, according to calculations by Oceana. Though it takes less than 10 minutes to guzzle and discard an orange soda, the resulting empty plastic bottle lasts practically forever in the ocean, far outliving most marine animals.

If Mr. McGuire were alive today and wanted to offer advice on how to substantially reduce plastic pollution in the near-term, he might say, “Just one word: Refillables.” This is the title of a new report by Oceana that outlines how the plastic industry can take needed action to reduce the onslaught of plastics by increasing the share of refillable bottles, which, the report shows, can reduce marine plastic pollution by billions of bottles each year.

Here’s what you need to know about refillable bottles, marine plastic pollution, and Oceana’s latest report.

Refillable bottles were introduced by Coca-Cola in the 1940s.

Those iconic glass Coca-Cola bottles were originally designed to be purchased, their fizzy contents consumed, and then returned to the company for re-use. And for many years, this system worked and was the dominant way that beverages were delivered. Unfortunately, with the advent of plastic bottles and throwaway convenience, refillable packaging declined as a share of the market and was overtaken (and even replaced) in the United States, Canada, and some European countries.

However, refillable bottles are still a major delivery system for beverages in many parts of the world.

“Refillable systems account for more than 30% of beverages sold in major markets, including Germany, Mexico, the Philippines, and Indonesia,” says Anne Schroeer, senior manager of strategic initiatives at Oceana, who co-authored the refillables report alongside Matt Littlejohn of Oceana and Dr. Henning Wilts of the Wuppertal Institute’s Circular Economy Division, based in Germany.

Refillable systems are currently in place in 94 countries, and together these nations account for 80% of global sales of ready-to-drink water, soda, and other non-alcoholic beverages.

Refillable bottle schemes have nearly a 100% success rate for getting the bottle back.

There’s typically a deposit for each bottle, and customers get their deposit back once they return it. Oceana’s analysis found that at least 95% of refillables – and sometimes up to 99% of all bottles – are returned to the retailer. At that point, they are sent to a plant to be sorted, washed, and reintroduced to the market.

Refillable bottles are reused 20 to 50 times.

Refillable bottles are typically made of glass or polyethylene terephthalate, better known as PET. Glass bottles can be reused up to 50 times and PET bottles can be reused up to 20 times before they are retired and recycled. Some glass bottles circulate for years.

Refillable bottles can drastically reduce the number of single-use bottles being thrown out.

When more beverages are sold in refillable bottles, the benefit to the ocean is amplified. Just a 10% increase in the share of beverages sold in refillable bottles could result in a 22% decrease in marine plastic pollution. This would keep 4.5 to 7.6 billion plastic bottles out of the ocean each year.

Refillable bottles can be a climate-friendly option.

Life cycle analyses in countries as disparate as Chile and Germany have found that reusable bottles had a smaller carbon footprint than ones that are discarded after a single use. Dr. Henning Wilts, a leading life cycle analysis expert with the Wuppertal Institute, noted in the report that refillable PET bottles can save up to 40% of the raw materials and 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the production of single-use plastic bottles.

Increasing the share of refillables and decreasing marine plastic pollution by billions of bottles is achievable.

Just four companies account for over 40% of sales (in terms of revenue) for the enormous non-alcoholic ready-to-drink market. These companies have the ability to change the overall beverage market, which means that increasing refillables and reducing marine plastic pollution is achievable in the near-term. That’s why Oceana is calling on global beverage companies to commit to substantially reducing plastic production and to increase refillables as a way to achieve this needed goal.

Want to learn more? Read Oceana's full report here.