2 trillion drinks containers are made every year – so where do they go?

coke can

(Ernest Brillo, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alex Thornton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


Be honest – how many drinks containers have you used today? A carton of orange juice at breakfast, a plastic bottle of water for your morning run, a takeaway coffee, maybe a can of soft drink at lunch, a couple of styrofoam cups at the office water cooler, perhaps even a bottle of wine to go with dinner? It all adds up.

Globally 2 trillion drinks containers will be made and sold this year, according to projections by the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE). That works out as more than five a week for every person on the planet. And the number is growing every year.

So what can individuals and governments do to make sure those containers don’t end up harming the planet?

Not all containers are equal

Different containers have different impacts on the environment.

Aluminium cans are lightweight and easy to transport, and can be easily recycled. The metal is also one of the most common on earth. But extracting it uses huge amounts of energy and water, and bauxite strip mines cause significant ecological damage.

Glass bottles are heavy to transport, which increases their carbon footprint. But they are 100% recyclable, and even when they are not recycled eventually break down into what is effectively sand.

Plastic is the most versatile material for packaging drinks. But recycling rates are low – just 14% of the 78 million metric tons produced annually is recycled, and only a fraction of that is reused to make more plastic. Discarded plastic can last centuries before it degrades, and 8 million tons a year ends up in our oceans.

Image: World Economic Forum / Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The best way to prevent drinks containers ending up as waste is, of course, to reuse them. Cities around the world are encouraging the use of refillable water bottles by installing water fountains, or setting up schemes where cafes and bars allow customers to fill up for free. There is even an app that will tell you where your nearest refill station is.

But for containers that can’t be reused, recycling is the next best thing. As the chart below shows, the challenge is actually getting people to do it.

Image: Statista

Deposit schemes

Deposit schemes are one solution. A small charge is levied on each bottle or can, which is then refunded when it’s taken back for recycling.

Norway has been running a highly successful scheme for many years, with recycling rates now at an astonishing 97%. It provides incentives not just for consumers, who can redeem their bottles for cash or credit, but also the shops which take part. Manufacturers benefit from a tax break if the overall national recycling rate reaches a minimum level, giving them a reason to design containers that are easy to recycle.

Different versions of the scheme run in other European countries like Germany, Denmark and Lithuania, and in several states within the US, Canada and Australia. Scotland has recently announced it will be charging 20p per bottle when it launches its own scheme.

Research has shown the schemes have had a broadly positive effect not just on recycling rates, but on the amount of waste plastic making its way into the ocean. Environmental campaigners are now calling for their introduction everywhere.

As the World Economic Forum’s New Plastics Economy Report makes clear, there is an enormous economic potential in designing and manufacturing packaging that reuses existing material. If the beverage industry can successfully apply the principles of the circular economy, you’ll be able to enjoy the convenience, without feeling guilty about the environment.

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