This month, Commentary is provided by guest editorialist John Davis, President of the Western Aerosol Information Bureau (WAIB).
As a first-generation Mexican immigrant, my wife still has a large portion of both her immediate and extended family living in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Every September, we head to her home town of Matanzas to celebrate Mexican Independence Day or, in Spanish, Día de la Independencia. This year, we still made the trip in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it had a slightly different feel. Instead of the large parties, dances and rodeos of past years, this year was more about small, outdoor family gatherings and meals.
If you close your eyes and imagine the rugged, mountainous, high desert backdrops of the old Clint Eastwood westerns, you will be transported in your mind to Matanzas. At the center of town is a centuries-old majestic Catholic church built from hand-cut stone that rises more than 100 feet into the air. The few thousand people who call Matanzas home are mostly proprietors of small shops, cattle ranchers and farmers who still cut the land with hand tools to grow corn and agave. Matanzas is a very simple place that seems frozen in time.
One evening during our most recent visit as we sat down to dinner, my father-in-law handed me a 500mL Coke that was in a very thick and heavy glass bottle. I noticed two horizontal lines etched into the bottle at its two widest points, as well as the word retornable or, translated into English, returnable. I had noticed these lines before and even remembered seeing my father-in-law packing empty Coke bottles into a reusable shopping bag and taking them back to the small, corner grocery store, but I had never given it much thought before.
During this recent visit, however, as I thought about those lines etched in that bottle and the image of my father-in-law walking down a narrow, dirt street carrying empty bottles to the tiny little grocery store, I realized that there, in that small and ancient Mexican farming village, was a robust sustainability infrastructure in place around those bottles. The lines etched on that bottle were the result of it spinning against other glass bottles countless times as it moved down a conveyor for refilling.
In 2019, the California State Legislature authored Senate Bill CA54 that would have required single-use packaging to meet specified recycling rates. The Bill, while well-intentioned, had many gaps and ultimately, time ran out during the legislative period and it did not pass. However, that Bill, and others like it, will come up again in the near future. In its original form, the Bill was just vague enough to cover some aerosol containers—and the aerosol industry needs to be thinking about these kinds of Bills and how we will measure recycling rates.
What is the connection between CA SB54 and my trip to Mexico? Very simply, if a robust sustainability plan and supporting infrastructure can be implemented and adopted in rural Mexico, where resources are scarce and scattered, there should be very few obstacles around sustainability initiatives here in the U.S. where resources are plentiful.
At the WAIB, our No. 1 initiative in 2020 and 2021 is to drive awareness around understanding recycling rates for empty aerosol containers so that this industry can be prepared for Bills like CA54. It is one thing to be recyclable; it is something completely different to be recycled.