If you’re old enough to remember walking the beaches of Malibu or Coronado in the 1970s, you can vouch for what was then often the truth of beach life in California – stepping on pop-tops, the aluminum ring that came off after opening a can of soda.
Today, small plastic caps from bottled water line soccer fields and litter streets, parks and beaches, where they trail only cigarette butts and food wrappers among our leading sources of litter.
As these caps proliferate as a public nuisance, it’s useful to remember how pop-tops disappeared almost overnight. The beverage industry perfected a better way to seal aluminum cans: the stay-top, which remains attached and gets recycled along with the rest of the can.
But just as the nuisance of throw-away aluminum rings was eliminated, an equivalent one began to emerge. In 1977, the bottled water revolution was launched, and sales have been surging ever since. In 2016, bottled water passed soda as America’s top-selling beverage – a total of 12.8 billion gallons a year, packaged in more than 50 billion plastic bottles, most sealed with detachable caps.
These tiny plastic caps are not just unsightly, but have become a serious environmental hazard. Small, buoyant and easy for wildlife to ingest, they are part of the plastic pollution in oceans and waterways. Seabirds are dying of starvation with stomachs full of bottle caps and other plastic debris.
The good news is that just like pop-tops, plastic bottle caps can be eliminated. Existing technology makes it relatively easy to tether the caps during bottling. Most companies replace the machinery entirely every five years or so.
One water bottler, CG Roxane that sells Crystal Geyser water, recently changed to a tethered cap in plants in Texas and in California to curb litter and plastic debris in the ocean.
The industry is well aware of consumer concerns about the environmental impact of all those plastic bottles, and how those concerns might hurt its growth as it competes with reusable aluminum water bottles.
In addition, this important step would come at an opportune time – just as China has decided to stop taking the plastic waste we’ve been sending them for years. Meeting California’s goal of 75 percent recycling will require a much greater reliance on in-state plastic bottle recyclers such as Carbon Lite, which wants the caps and recycles them.
There is a bill to eliminate detachable caps before the Legislature, Assembly Bill 319. We need a legislated solution because most leaders in the beverage industry have refused to take the kind of action they did in the 1970s to protect the environment and prevent litter.
Miriam Gordon is policy director at the UPSTREAM Policy Institute in San Francisco and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick Lapis is director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste and can be contacted at email@example.com.