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PET, once the start of plastic recycling, has fallen upon hard times.

Prices have plummeted, markets are disappearing, and some recyclers are stuck with loads of material they cannot move.

This sounds suspiciously like the problems that once plagued newspaper recycling. But the problem with PET runs much deeper and its implications for recycling programs that accept plastic containers are greater.

What has happened to PET? It's not the economy, stupid. It's the stupid actions of major chemical companies flooding the market with virgin resin and destroying the markets for recycled PET. This was the message of four plastics industry insiders who were brought to a forum on PET recycling sponsored by the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance recently in St. Paul, Minn.

During 1996, major chemical companies including Shell Chemical Co., Eastman Chemical Co. and Hoechst Celanese Corp. greatly increased their production of virgin PET. This increase far outpaced the growing demand for their material. Rather than reduce production, these multibillion-dollar giants have continued to produce millions of pounds of excess resin.

``The chemical companies aren't slowing down,'' said Peter Lobin of RIB Corp., a plastics recycler in Jefferson, Wis. ``They are dumping train loads of material on the market.''

The virgin PET being dumped on the market is sold at rock-bottom prices — prices usually reserved for resin that did not meet specifications. Where virgin resin may cost 30-45 cents per pound to produce, the chemical companies are now dumping perfectly good resin on the market at ``off- spec'' prices of 18-25 cents per pound.

Since it costs 25-35 cents per pound to convert post-consumer PET bottles into flake or pellets, PET recyclers cannot compete with the resin being dumped on the market. The practice is likely to continue through 1997.

The new economics of PET have forced most recyclers, like RIB Corp., out of the PET business. There used to be 50-60 reclaimers like RIB in PET. According to Lobin, that number has dropped to 20 — and at least eight of those firms may not be in business long.

In addition to the loss of reclaimers, recycled PET has lost most of the strapping market. The producers of strapping have started using virgin resin and stopped taking almost all recycled PET, according to Larry Koester of Petco USA. The strapping market was the primary market for green PET bottles. Without the strapping market, it won't be long before green PET bottles begin to pile up on the loading docks of recyclers around the country.

As recycling markets are disappearing, the volume of PET plastic bottles is growing. There were some 8.5 billion single-serve PET bottles sold in 1996 and billions more larger bottles. The volume of single-serve PET containers is expected to grow 78 percent annually, according to Dennis Sabourin of Wellman Inc.

These single-serve containers are replacing the more easily recycled aluminum can and glass bottle. The small PET bottle also is being sold at venues such as ball parks, where collection can be difficult and costly.

However, since the plastics industry has created the expectation that we can recycle PET, communities will be under pressure to recycle PET at these public locations.

One answer to the problems of PET recycling is for recyclers and consumers to push for minimum-content laws for PET. Among the targets for minimum-content legislation are strapping, carpeting and beverage containers. The technology for adding recycled materials to all of these items exists and was price-competitive before the current overproduction binge.

In fact, Coca-Cola is using recycled-content bottles in a number of international markets, including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland.

However, the soft drink giant has no recycled-content bottles on the shelves in the United States. Neither does Pepsi, which, combined with Coke, is responsible for using more than half of all PET bottles in the United States.

In the late 1980s we were able to hold a political gun to the head of the plastics industry, and it responded with some efforts to make its products recyclable. But now that the gun is back in the holster, we are seeing the industry in full retreat from its recycling commitment.

The national recycling goal of 25 percent has been abandoned. Heavy lobbying has killed California's minimum-content law. The PET recycling market has been destroyed by a gross oversupply of virgin resin with no change in sight.

The plastics public relations blitz that created the public impression that plastics could and should be recycled has been dropped in favor of ads that simply state, ``Ain't plastic great.''

Well, I've had it with low prices, bulky bottles that take up space on my trucks, chemical companies dumping resin, and high-paid, industry-funded lobbyists out to stifle our efforts. The only way to put pressure on the plastics industry is to call for a consumer boycott of plastic soft-drink and water bottles until minimum-content laws have been enacted.

There are recycling-friendly alternatives to plastic bottles on store shelves throughout the country. We should encourage consumers to purchase aluminum cans and glass bottles while leaving plastic bottles on the shelf.

The time to start the consumer boycott and call for minimum-content laws is now. Several people in Wisconsin already have expressed a willingness to call for a PET boycott. There are also some other folks from around the nation who would like to participate.

Dreckmann is president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin and recycling coordinator for the City of Madison, Wis.