Only about 12 percent of "custom" plastic bottles, a category dominated by water, were recycled in 2003, according to industry consultant R.W. Beck, Inc. That's 40 million bottles a day that went into the trash or became litter. In contrast, the recycling rate for plastic soft drink bottles is around 30 percent.
The low water bottle recycling rate also impacts the overall recycling rate of all recyclable plastic containers. That's fallen from 53 percent in 1994 to 19 percent in 2003.
Plastics should be recycled so that less petroleum — a finite commodity — is consumed, Franklin says.
"The environmental impacts are in the drilling of the oil," she adds, noting that burning fossil fuel also releases gases that many scientists tie to global warming.
A second reason for recycling, Franklin says, is the litter factor. While plastic water bottles are not a significant percentage of overall waste, the empties are certainly all around us visually.
Thirdly, she says, is the fact that the domestic plastics recycling industry faces a shortage because so much is being exported to China for recycling there. That shortage has also led to fears that some companies will go bankrupt.
"There is a means to reclaim these bottles and use them to make new bottles and other products at home," Franklin says, "but they (recyclers) simply can't get enough of the containers to do it."
Strategies The Container Recycling Institute thinks a nationwide bottle deposit law would create the incentive to recycle, especially when it comes to plastic bottles, and ease the burden on taxpayers, who pay for cleaning up litter.
"A national bottle bill, or producer responsibility bill, could turn it around and shift the costs from government and taxpayers to producers and consumers," Franklin says.
States with deposit laws already recycle four out of five bottles, Franklin notes, thanks in part to an army of recyclers — from Boy Scout Troops to office cleaning crews — that turns one person's trash into their income.
Eleven states have bottle bills but they are a patchwork with no two alike, she adds, and only three states, California, Hawaii and Maine, include plastic water bottles in their laws.
A national law, she says, should cover new containers that didn't exist 20 years ago, e.g. plastic water bottles, and enforce a dime-per-bottle deposit "as it is in Michigan, where deposit containers are recovered at a rate of 95 percent."
But while deposit legislation has had varying degrees of bipartisan support in Congress over the years, it has never become law.
Franklin blames opposition from the beverage industry, saying its campaign contributions have given it "incredible political clout in Congress and actually in every state legislature in the country."