THIS YEAR'S REPORT CARD NOT PRETTY

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AKRON, OHIO — It was a year when even PET recycling seemed to hit the skids.

A year in which big-name plastics companies got out of the recycling business: Quantum Chemical Co. (now Millennium Petrochemicals Inc.), Mobil Chemical Co., Union Carbide Corp. and Occidental Chemical Corp.

A year in which, after a flurry of high-profile backsliding by plastics recyclers, Plastics News actually sported this Page 1 headline: ``Plastics recycling: Time for last rites?''

The past 12 months have not been kind to plastics recycling.

As a result, the grades on this year's recycling report card may sting a bit. Unfortunately for many of the (involuntary) participants, we don't believe in grade inflation, and we don't grade on a curve.

As always, the grades are subjective, and the primary criteria are whether the parties met their goals, whether their efforts are sustainable, and whether their accomplishments were substantive or frivolous.

SMC Automotive Alliance: A

The alliance could have taken the easy way out when it lost its prime recycling enterprise. Phoenix Fiberglass Inc. closed its sheet molding compound recycling plant in Oakville, Ontario, on April 1, 1996.

But the Troy, Mich.-based trade group showed that its members continue to be serious about proving the recyclability of SMC when they picked R.J. Marshall Co. of Detroit to take over the research.

Do you suppose that the steel industry's harping on the recycling issue had anything to do with the decision?

Millennium Petrochemicals Inc.: CThe former Quantum Chemical Co. tried and tried again to sell its high density polyethylene recycling plant in Heath, Ohio. But the initial deal fell through, and Millennium threatened to repossess the plant before finally making the sale.

Most companies would prefer to get out of the recycling business quietly, but Cincinnati-based Millennium couldn't seem to stay out of the headlines.

Although the company's 5-year-old recycling business failed, we give the firm credit for sticking with it as long as it did, and for making the effort to find a buyer.

Maybe that's proof that virgin resin suppliers don't believe that every pound of recycled resin sold represents lost business.

Blueberry Plastic Mill Corp.: F

This independent Des Moines, Iowa, recycler was never short on ideas or moxie.

The company handled a variety of materials, and tried to market a wide range of end products, rather than depending on the ups and downs of the resin market.

Ultimately the effort failed, and the firm went under last year after unsecured creditors failed to approve its Chapter 11 reorganization.

U.S. Plastic Lumber Co.: A

The Boca Raton, Fla., firm believes that plastic lumber has a future, so you've got to love it. Since it became publicly traded in April 1996, U.S. Plastic Lumber has made five acquisitions, including well-known firms like Recycled Plastics Industries Inc. of Green Bay, Wis.

The scary part is if U.S. Plastic Lumber were to go under, the industry would be decimated.

KW Plastics Recycling Division: A

The Troy, Ala.-based company continues to be a major player in the markets for post-consumer high density polyethylene and polypropylene.

With other companies falling by the wayside, KW has continued to invest in expanding the business.

American Plastics Council: D

The major embarrassment was the decision to quietly abandon its 1991 goal of recycling 25 percent of plastic bottles and rigid containers by 1995.

The move was indicative of how Washington-based APC has changed over the past few years. Perhaps the plastics industry can argue that the change was for the better — it reflects the major transition that has occurred in the political landscape in the past six years.

But this report card covers recycling, and in recycling, APC's marks are not improving.

Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc.: Incomplete

Got a match? AERT has had a string of fires at its recycling plants since January 1993. The most recent, a December blaze at its Rogers, Ark., plant, was the result of arson, according to the company.

The unfortunate incidents are a black eye for AERT and the recycling industry. But each time, the company appears determined to brush off the ashes and start again.

Environment and Plastics Institute of Canada: C

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come in the United States when EPIC recently combined with SPI Canada and other groups to form the Canadian Plastics Industry Association.

Can a merger of APC and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. be far behind?

U.S. recyclers should watch the Canadians to see how the groups function together, and whether it is ultimately to the benefit or detriment of recycling.

Recent surge of interest in degradable plastics: F

The recent flood of gushing stories about degradables in the popular press shows that most reporters aren't doing their homework.

Did they forget the firestorm of criticism after the last wave of commercial degradables? Most trash ends up in landfills, and degradable trash bags, for example, do not really degrade in state-of-the-art landfills.

Niche applications for degradables still exist, but we all need to make sure that the issue remains in the proper perspective.

Mobil Chemical Co.: D

Although it was a minuscule part of its total business, Mobil used to be a major player in plastics recycling. But now nearly all of that is gone.

In Mobil's case, the recycling operations disappeared when it jettisoned other units. Now that the company no longer makes stretch wrap, trash bags or grocery sacks, for example, the incentive to recycle those products disappeared.

The last piece of the puzzle, the plastic-lumber-making Composite Products Division, was sold to managers last year and renamed Trex Co. LLC.

Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers: C

Washington-based APR hired its first full-time employee a year ago. Last fall, the group debated what sort of measures to take to react to the rapid negative changes occurring in the industry.

APR always will have trouble reaching a popular consensus because of the independent, widely differing nature of its member companies. However, members have been meeting lately to discuss how to revive PET recycling.

On its deathbed only a few months ago, PET is making a slow recovery. Could this group be fostering its comeback?

Floyd V. Hammer: B

Hammer, whose name was synonymous with plastics recycling in the late 1980s, made the surprise comeback of the year when he retook control of Plastic Recycling Inc. based in Iowa Falls, Iowa.

The company was renamed Hammer's Plastic Recycling Inc. No matter how you feel about Floyd, the industry just didn't seem the same without him.

Plastic Recycling Alliance: F

This pioneering, Chicago-based plastics recycler has been teetering on the brink of a failing grade for years. Look out below!

PRA started in 1989 as a joint venture of DuPont Co. and Waste Management of North America with recycling plants in Chicago and Philadelphia — and ambitious plans to build more.

Over the years, PRA experienced these setbacks: The growth plans never materialized, the Philly plant closed, Waste Management dropped out, and DuPont sold the plant to Illinois Tool Works Inc.

The most recent wrinkle: Glenview, Ill.-based ITW shut down the operation Feb. 1.

In its original form, PRA was less of a business and more of an experiment — or perhaps a public relations statement — to prove that plastics were recyclable.

In the end it was the victim of the free market — resin prices were low enough that it no longer made sense to continue to recycle.

Council on Packaging in the Environment: F

A casualty of the ``let's declare victory and go home'' syndrome that seems to have afflicted plastics recycling in recent years. COPE — formerly the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment — shut down in December.

Council of Northeastern Governors' source reduction office: F

Ditto COPE; CONEG's effort also shut down in December.

Perhaps the plastics industry safely can declare victory on the recycling front — the issue isn't on any politician's front-burner, as the CONEG decision attests.

Wellman Inc.: C

The Shrewsbury, N.J.-based company, the world's largest recycler of PET, continued to advance the industry by winning a letter of nonobjection from the Food and Drug Administration for its EcoClear post-consumer bottle resin and thermoformable sheet.

Why the mediocre grade? Because Wellman is also a supplier of virgin PET now, and PET markets have been depressed because it and others have contributed to the current oversupply.

Occidental Chemical Corp.: D

Dallas-based OxyChem gamely supported post-consumer PVC recycling for a long time, but ultimately gave up on the project.

Last year OxyChem sold its EcoVinyl product line to Bayshore Vinyl Compounds Inc., which paid only $1 but pledged to invest $3 million more in new equipment.

Without a market for the material, the Tennent, N.J.-based compounder will have a tough time keeping the product line alive.

Union Carbide Corp.: F

Union Carbide shut down its Piscataway, N.J., recycling plant, blaming ``less-than-acceptable earnings potential.'' So what's new?

To its credit, Carbide did put some effort into the project before its sad demise, including receiving an FDA letter of nonobjection for use of post-consumer HDPE in multilayer food containers.

Phillips 66 Co.: A

Bartlesville, Okla.-based Phillips opened its Tulsa, Okla., HDPE recycling plant in early 1992, at roughly the same time that Carbide and Quantum opened their plants.

At the time, Phillips was recovering from a bitter takeover battle with T. Boone Pickens, and a disastrous explosion at its major Pasadena, Texas, virgin resin complex. Phillips appeared to be the best bet to drop out of recycling first.

Today only Phillips remains in the business. Officials there deserve a good grade for sticking to their guns.

Rutgers University's Center for Plastics Recycling Research: F

The Piscataway, N.J., center shut down last fall, the victim of public and industry indifference and tightening state research budgets.

Rutgers was once the leading institution in the field, and the results of its research will outlive the center.

California Legislature: F

In the closing hours of the 1996 legislative session, lawmakers pulled a stunt that they probably would not have attempted had anyone been paying attention.

Without any meaningful debate, legislators adopted a bill that gutted the state's container recycling law.

The bill was supported by the Grocery Manufacturers of America, California League of Food Processors and APC, among others.

The state's municipalities remain stuck with a mandate to collect plastics for recycling, and recyclers who planned for the law's implementation also were left in the cold, without long-promised markets.

European Plastics Recyclers: Incomplete

EuPR, a new Brussels, Belgium-based recycling trade group, was formed in late 1996 to encourage the establishment of industry standards, developing new markets, supporting research, and — most importantly — lobbying the European Union on behalf of plastics recyclers.

We'll be watching to see what this new group accomplishes.