Back to the future for reusing bottles

Florence van Dyke co-founder of beverage company Chia Sisters What do you think, email



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Re-using bottles is not odd to anyone living in New Zealand before the mid-1990s. For me, a twice-weekly childhood chore was to place empty bottles at the kerbside with tokens for purchasing milk. The bottles were washed, sanitised and refilled hundreds of times. But in less than three decades we have transitioned to a singleuse economy. Kiwis enjoy drinks from more than 2.5 billion singleuse bottles each year. Using a bottle once has become cheaper than washing it and using it again. How can that make financial sense? Because companies, ours included, are not required to take into account full lifecycle costs such as recycling, landfill or littering. Taxes pay for recycling and landfill, and the environment suffers unaccounted losses through climate change and damage to biodiversity and wildlife. At Chia Sisters we bottle in recycled and recyclable glass bottles. Recycling is better than landfill, but it is not the best option for a bottle that can be used again. Recycling is carbon intensive and inefficient. In New Zealand, plastic bottles are ‘‘downcycled’’, which means they are not recycled into a new bottle. Even with laws that require recycled content in plastic bottles, there is still a percentage of new plastic that is made from fossil-derived oil . This is not a good option given the strong messages we receive from the IPCC to keep fossil fuels in the ground. It is possible to infinitely recycle cans and bottles but the process is energy intensive and there is no infrastructure in New Zealand. Recycling also requires international dependency. We rely on Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia to deal with a significant portion of our recycling and, as global supply chains become more complex, costs are increasing. Re-using bottles is a better option that uses less energy, carbon and water when compared to recycling. It also reduces the extraction of virgin resources because each reusable bottle displaces the need to manufacture multiple single-use beverage bottles. At Chia Sisters we decided we should be doing better than relying on recycling. We investigated returns of empty bottles to our juicery in Nelson so that we could refill bottles. We found that establishing a national returns system is inefficient for a company our size. We considered larger bottle sizes to reduce the packaging-toingredients ratio but the maximum glass bottle size is 750ml in New Zealand. We are trying to supply fresh pressed juice to cafes and supermarkets in reusable kegs so that customers can enjoy beverages from glasses or their own refillable container, but we are struggling to gain traction. And now an opportunity has presented itself – an opportunity to advocate for a national re-use scheme to be implemented as part of the Government’s container return scheme proposal that is open for submissions. Under the scheme, beverage containers carry a 20c deposit that customers get back when they return empty containers. The cost of operating the scheme is covered by beverage producers. This incentive is predicted to double New Zealand’s bottle return rate to 85%. Submissions close on May 22. The scheme is a step in the right direction. It will reduce rubbish and increase recycling. But we can do better. If we are already collecting the bottles, why not re-use them? If reusables were included as a priority in the scheme, every beverage producer could sell beverages in bottles that can be washed and sanitised in a centralised system and returned for refill. Just like with singleuse beverage containers, the operation costs could be covered by beverage producers. The Government suggests reusables could become part of the scheme in the future but now is an opportune time to build reuse into the proposed beverage container return scheme because the proposal will set the foundations for an efficient, producer-funded network. We have become so accustomed to a single-use economy that re-using bottles seems difficult. But it is better for the environment, enables us to be less dependent on other countries, and is cheaper once we take into account the true cost of materials from their extraction to disposal. Best of all, we have been here before. In 1995 New Zealand transitioned from re-using bottles to single-use. Now we have an opportunity to transition back.