What should you do with plastic bottle caps?

At the end of a year in which the devastating effects of single-use plastic have been brought into sharp relief by popular environmental documentaries Blue Planet II and Drowning in Plastic and a litany of government policies designed to reduce its environmental impact, it is becoming more apparent that the consumers must also play a part in changing our throwaway culture.

With 13 billion single-use plastic bottles pumped out every year in the UK by a range of household brands – Evian, Nestle and Coca-Cola, to name just a few – the challenge is sizeable. What should you do with plastic bottle caps?

However, with proposals to introduce a deposit return scheme for drinks bottles and cans by 2025 and the announcement of a plastics tax for all packaging that contains less than 30 per cent recycled content, disposable beverage containers are under scrutiny like never before, with a range of policy interventions designed to get a handle on the single-use bottle problem.

Yet, one aspect of the issues posed by such containers remains relatively unaddressed – plastic bottle caps. They have caused confusion among consumers for as long as plastic bottles have been recyclable, and often end up being thrown in the general waste bin or dropped as litter.

The 2017 International Coastal Cleanup, an annual beach cleanup event run by ocean advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, reported that plastic bottle caps were the third most collected item worldwide

Bottle caps pose a significant environmental hazard as they are small enough to be ingested by wildlife and also break down into microplastics when left in the environment. 

So what can the consumers do?

In the past, councils have told residents that the detached bottle caps cannot just be thrown loose into the same plastic recycling box as plastic bottles. Made from a different plastic polymer to that of a bottle, the two supposedly couldn’t be recycled together.

Yet, the plastic recycling charity Recycling Of Used Plastics Limited (RECOUP), issued a paper in September 2018 putting forward some new information. It said: ‘It can be confirmed that plastic caps should be left on plastic bottles for recycling. This reduces the potential for the cap to be littered separately, and when attached to the bottle it also allows the cap (as well as the attached neck ring) to pass through the sorting facility and get to a plastic bottle reprocessor.

‘This approach simplifies the consumer message, removes confusion, and makes it easier for consumers to recycle bottles. A separated cap will not successfully pass through a sorting facility and will go into a residue fraction for landfill or energy recovery.

‘If the cap reaches the bottle reprocessor, they can separate the cap and sell that fraction for recycling. Leaving the cap on does not have any negative effect on the value offered by bottle reprocessors to suppliers of post‐consumer baled bottle material.’

Essentially, all consumers have to do is empty and flatten their bottles, leaving on the bottle cap, and then dispose of the bottle and cap into the same recycling plastics box. Once caps are in the plastic (PET) bottle reprocessor, they will be re-granulated, with the material floated off during the wash process and sold on.

But, perhaps the UK should be aiming for a more straightforward, immediate approach. In California, all retailers will be prohibited from selling single-use drinks bottles without a tethered cap from 2020 onwards, ensuring that bottle caps do not get separated from the bottles.

Despite bottle caps representing eight per cent (compared to a global six per cent) of collected waste in the UK at the International Coastal Cleanup, few UK manufacturers have considered California’s solution.

What are manufacturers doing about it?

It is still quite taxing to try and find information from UK manufacturers directly on what to do with your bottle caps, or what they are doing with the waste item. Even a direct venture to the website of international consumer goods company, Unilever, does not provide any easy-to-find answers on what to do with the bottle caps. Despite supporting initiatives such as RECOUP’s ‘Pledge 4 Plastics’, which focuses on recycling plastic bottles, there’s little mention of caps.

Many other manufacturers have also focused primarily on the bottles. For instance, in April 2018 Highland Spring brought out a trial eco bottle made from 100 per cent recycled plastic – whilst the company makes it clear that the cap is not made from recycled plastic, both bottle and cap are recyclable.

Yet, there are some companies who are making changes to their manufacturing processes, whilst addressing the growing number of discarded bottle caps. For instance, Lush UK, the high-street beauty brand, collects plastic bottle caps and sends them to Poole to be recycled into black pots. These pots, which are made of 100 per cent recycled plastic and used as containers for most of Lush’s products, can be returned to the shop for reuse.

Meanwhile, some companies are trying to remove the plastic packaging altogether, which would be an ideal end goal to reduce our mounting plastic waste; Lucozade sport trialled edible packaging at sport events in August 2018, although it is not yet available to the mass market.

There has indeed been a shift in attitude from food and drink manufacturers away from plastic packaging as a whole; over 40 businesses signed the UK Plastics Pact in April, promising to eliminate ‘unnecessary’ plastic packaging by 2025. Leading bottle manufacturers also agreed to eliminate plastic packaging by 2030. But, the rate of recycling for plastic bottles has plateaued at 57 per cent for the last five years.

The mountain of single-use plastic waste remains high but not insurmountable. While scaling the challenge will require high-level policy intervention and a change of direction from businesses, it is up to the consumer to recycle everything we can – including bottle caps. 

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