THE RELUCTANCE OF RECYCLING

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The late Satchel Paige offered up some good advice along with his baseball skills over the years. ``Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you,'' is one of his most noted and (misquoted) suggestions.

Paige also advised people to ``avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.'' Substitute the word ``recycling'' for fried meats and you have both the plastics industry's source of heartburn and what blots out the sunshine when it looks to the rear.

Back at NPE '91, some industry observers said plastics would reach its 50 percent recycling goal by 2000. That is not a forecast even close to the target.

In 1995, the overall recycling rate for plastics containers was 18 percent. It was even less last year — despite an actual growth in the number of pounds of plastic being recycled, according to the Washington-based American Plastics Council.

People typically line up pointing in different directions when asked to explain why the recycling rate has been declining. Some say it is simply a market issue, and the economics aren't there to properly support the initiative (which government largely has funded).

Others claim resin suppliers float their production levels to undermine recycling, since the success of the latter threatens sales of virgin resin.

Earlier this year, George Dreckmann, recycling coordinator for the city of Madison, Wis., and president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin, was so annoyed by the decline of recycled PET rates that he wrote a letter that Plastics News published calling for a consumer boycott of PET.

Reader response was immediate and predictable. Recyclers cheered, suppliers did not. Some consultants also weighed in, generally on the side of the manufacturers. Processors, for the most part, pursed their lips and stayed away from the ``fried meats.''

Curiously, so have a lot of consumers, who are neither as passionate nor committed to professional (as opposed to personal) recycling as the public often is portrayed. Few, for example, have ever voted for laws mandating minimum-content requirements or container-deposit fees. That does not mean people think it is appropriate to litter the environment or otherwise behave in an anti-social manner, though millions certainly do.

It is possible that extending product liability to the disposal or recycling of consumer solid waste has produced an unintended, and counterproductive, effect.

The industry is sensitive to that kind of trash talk. So are consumers, who know the cradle-to-grave cost of all products is passed on to them.

Henson is an assistant managing editor of Plastics News.