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The recycling rate for PET bottles dropped again in 1996, to 26 percent, and for the first time ever so did the number of pounds of material recycled, according to figures from the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery.

That sizable drop, from 32 percent in 1995, came as the pounds of material collected dropped to 572 million pounds, an 8 percent decrease from 622 million pounds in 1995, NAPCOR said. The figures were released May 29.

NAPCOR President Luke Schmidt pointed to three factors for the decline: an increase in virgin capacity in 1996, a decline in local government support for recycling and the continued popularity of single-serve, 20-ounce soft drink bottles that are purchased at locations such as gas stations and then consumed on the run.

But the market began to rebound in 1997 and demand and prices for post-consumer PET bottles are approaching historic levels, according to NAPCOR, based in Charlotte, N.C.

``We've always thought the market would correct itself,'' said NAPCOR spokeswoman Quinn Davidson.

Some local recycling officials are not so sure, said Sandra Strauss, executive director of the Public Recycling Officials of Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit organization made up of municipal recycling coordinators, and a board member of the National Recycling Coalition in Alexandria, Va.

NAPCOR is doing a good job but there is growing sentiment among government officials that minimum-content legislation, or ``the threat of it,'' will be needed, she said. Strauss said she was speaking for herself, not for PROP.

``I used to be more of a believer that the market would correct the problem,'' she said. Some of the plastics industry — particularly soft drink bottle makers — have not made a commitment to recycling, Strauss said.

The market improved in early 1997 and reports are a ``little bit more favorable from the field but nothing overwhelmingly positive,'' she said.

Tom Frank, vice president of operations at PET blow molder Grafco Industries in Hanover, Md., said the price of virgin resin in 1996 did not make it economical to use recycled material.

``With the price of virgin resin so low last year, it really creates a problem in that the ability to process recycled is more difficult and that equates to more expensive [products],'' he said. He also said that without mandated content legislation, ``the plastics industry isn't forced to use recycled material in the products.''

But the recent price increases for virgin PET are starting to make recycled materials attractive again and that could boost the recycling rate in 1997, Frank said. Grafco is a NAPCOR member.

Schmidt, in a written statement, said that PET resin producers increased their capacity in 1996 to meet increased demand, resulting in a temporary imbalance that dropped prices.

``This resulted in a short-term decline in demand for recycled PET and a temporary, two- to three-month shutdown of domestic PET recycling facilities,'' NAPCOR's statement said.

The industry sold 2.2 billion pounds of PET last year, up from 1.95 billion pounds in 1995, NAPCOR said.

The popularity of single-serve soft drink bottles hurts recycling because the containers are sold in places like convenience stores and are used elsewhere, making it tougher for them to find their way into curbside programs, NAPCOR said.

``One of the biggest factors is, these things are being consumed away from home,'' said Pat Franklin, director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington. ``How they are going to get them is beyond me.''

NAPCOR is giving away 1,000 ``PETE's Big Bin'' recycler containers that are shaped like the 20-ounce bottles and are intended for places without traditional curbside programs, such as universities, large offices and arenas. The group also plans a trial consumer education program later this year to encourage consumers to put the bottles in curbside bins.

Cities that put forward the effort, such as Louisville, Ky., are seeing increases in PET collection, NAPCOR said. PET collection there doubled.

The NAPCOR study was conducted by University of Toledo engineering professor Robert Bennett.

The 26 percent recycling rate brings the figure back to 1992 levels. Fiber is still the largest use of recycled PET, increasing from 277 million pounds to 292 million pounds. Other categories changed little, but recycled PET used in food and beverage containers dropped from 45 million pounds in 1995 to 24 million pounds in 1996.

The export market also declined from 153 million pounds to 134 million pounds, the study said. The survey also found that ``there is no indication that end use markets are saturated'' and said domestic demand continues to be more than 700 million pounds.