The past year has seen an explosion of interest and action in plastics recycling. Hardly a day passes that Plastics News is not made aware of, or asked a question about, some plastics recycling development. New companies want to cash in on a suddenly hot - and increasingly profitable - recycling trend. Existing recyclers are expanding operations. End users are embracing recycling, and introducing new packages with recycled content to prove it.
The question most recyclers have is whether this growth is real and sustainable, or the extension of what has amounted to lip service throughout the industry for years. If the growth is real, recyclers wonder: How long will it last?
No one knows, but all agree that for recycling, reuse and source reduction to work, everyone must participate, including the public, processors, consumer products companies, and the post-consumer and post-industry collectors, who have to maintain and improve supplies.
Add in the anticipation felt throughout the industry about the impact of recycled-content mandates that took effect in California and Oregon, and the specter of further governmental action, and the picture is both exciting and chaotic. Our annual report card for plastics recycling is as follows:
The American Plastics Council: B
APC's goal of fostering a more positive image for plastics - and its ancillary mission of heading off federal or local governmental mandates - got ashot in the arm with the appointmentof Capitol Hill denizen Red Cavaney as president.
While last year APC's ``Take another look at plastic'' megabucks ad campaign had undetermined effects on the general public, the appointment of Cavaney, with his ties to major league Republican leadership and extensive lobbying experience, shows APC's true goals: to build unity and keep government out of the plastics business.
If Cavaney can unite the industry and fight more regulation and mandates, he will do more than all the Super Bowl commercials combined. It's a big ``if.''
``There's a message in this bottle'' campaign: DAPC resurrected this ad campaign after the November election, and it sent exactly the wrong message. The ads appeared in several Washington publications read by political junkies, including new members of Congress.
But the image the ads unintentionally invoke is not pretty. The public does not need to be reminded of tons of plastic bottles floating up on shore, whether they are recyclable or not.
R.W. Beck & Associate's national recycling rates study: A
This annual study of post-consumer plastics recycling rates, conducted primarily for APC, regained some credibil-ity last year. Some recyclers had criti-cized the report, charging it overestimates the quantity of post-consumer plastic being recycled. APC argued that the study was flawed, but provided the only data available.
APC sought to plug the holes by including more input from the Association of Post-consumer Plastics Recyclers. Collecting this data is essential, not only to comply with state laws but to gauge industry's progress toward meeting its own goals. APC must remain diligent in this effort.
EPA's city/industry plastic bottleredesign project: A
Amazingly, the Environmental Protection Agency came up with the idea of asking the people who see plastic scrap first, and profit least - municipal solid waste officials - to meet with packaging makers and buyers to find ways to make plastics recycling more profitable. Great concept, and we hope many of the project's common-sense remedies will be accepted throughout the industry without government force-feeding.
Procter & Gamble Co. and Clorox Co.: A for effort; D for caving in to the bottom line. Overall: C
The two consumer products giants, which had been good soldiers in using higher-than-mandated levels of post-consumer plastic in containers for many of their product lines, announced they were cutting back to the 25 percent level required by some state laws. The reason: the cost of recycled high density polyethylene went through the roof due to scarceness of supply.
SPI/National Recycling Coalition code efforts: F
Last year these groups got a D+ because, after working for more than a year, they came up with a plan to change the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s bottle identification code that many recyclers and processors did not like.
This year the grade drops because the compromise collapsed. Both sides can blame the other, but the fact is that each association was unable to convince its members to support the plan, much less educate the public as a whole that the code does not symbolize recyclability, but only resin type.
We were never thrilled with the compromise. But the way it was put together, and then fell apart, was ridiculously inept.
The FTC-Amoco ``recyclable'' rule: A
The Federal Trade Commission correctly asked Amoco Foam Products Co. to remove terms such as ``recyclable'' and ``100 percent recyclable foam plates'' from polystyrene foam products. There is a big difference between encouraging consumers to recycle and hyping the ``recyclability'' of a product that few collection programs accept.
Du Pont Co. and Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc.: A
Projecting its own growing use of recycled PET and the rising cost ofvirgin resin, Crown Cork set up its own recycling operation operated by its Nationwide Recyclers Inc. of Polktown, N.C.
DuPont, also counting on the continued love affair with polyester, will come on line with a methanolysis plant in Wilmington, N.C. The news was not good for independent recyclers, who see the competition for the scarce feedstocks influenced by these big-bucks players.
NPE '94 recycling program: CWith hundreds of machines cranking out thousands of samples an hour, NPE had the solid waste problems of a small city. Modest amounts of plastic were recycled at the show, through the efforts of Eaglebrook Plastics Inc. and high school volunteers.
More visible than their efforts, however, were the paid college youths dunning attendees as they left the halls to recycle their badges. But it was not the badges and their pouches that had the value, it was the microchip-laden, reprogrammable show cards, whose value probably outstripped all the food-service material at the show.
Despite claims to the contrary, recycling was emphasized less at last year's NPE than in 1991. Does this signal a loss of interest, or simply acceptance?
Partek/Thriftway/Port Authority/APC demonstration project: F
Victor Bitar, owner of Partek Inc., a Vancouver, Wash., recycling company, found himself with a heap of trouble after signing up to be the official recycler for an APC demonstration project with grocery stores in Oregon and Washington. Portland, Ore.-based Thriftway Inc. had run the program for years, and APC contributed $100,000 to buy machinery for the Partek project.
Unfortunately, the program dumped more plastic on Partek than anticipated. Bitar claimed the machinery was not compatible with his equipment, and the Vancouver [Washington] Port Authority took a dim view of the unsightly piles of waste and evicted Partek from its building.
Embrace Systems Corp.: F
This Holland, Mich., company went through three chief executive officers in a week after admitting to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had lied about its financial performance and markets for new products. Currently struggling to restructure, Embrace also faces serious challenges to its proprietary process for making loose-fill material from recycled plastic. Stories like this one will not advance the recycling industry.
``Take the Wrap'' campaign: D
This anti-plastics campaign, coordinated by Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste, took aim and missed their target again this year, urging supporters to mail polypropylene yogurt containers to Dannon Co. Inc., and to ask the company for packaging that's easier to recycle.
Like what, glass? Paperboard? None would be both cost effective and easier to recycle.
Chicago Board of Trade: B
The people who brought you grain futures trading have an admirable plan: to begin cash trading of recycled PET and HDPE. The plan calls for establishing grades and quality standards largely lacking in the industry, and sets up an arbitration process for those who don't comply. The question now is, will the close-mouthed recycling industry want to air its dirty laundry: information about pricing and supplies?
Garten Foundation/APC's politically correct materials recovery project: C
While the Partek project failed, APC elected to jump into a new recovery venture with Garten Foundation, a nonprofit organization that employs handicapped people in Eugene, Ore. The council furnished $1 million for an advanced plastic bottle sorting system, which went into business handling waste bottles from across the state, including the Thriftway program after Partek failed.
Location of the materials recovery facility is interesting, given the presence of the Oregon Legislature in Eugene, and the implementation of the state's new recycling law in January. Could it be that plastics industry officials want the legislators to see how well plastics recycling works, so that more-restrictive laws are not passed?
Plastics Recycling Foundation: CPRF, seeking to prove the adage about the rose by any other name, and to reflect its changing membership, changed its name to the Packaging Research Foundation, and shifted its focus from recycling to packaging.
Originally the group included a number of resin manufacturers and others, but membership now includes more package end-users.
The change in emphasis means more attention to the other two of the ``three R's'' - reuse and source reduction. Not a bad thought, but was the recycling work done?
Chemical Manufacturers Association: F
CMA tried and apparently failed to wrest control of APC from SPI. It was an ugly, foul-smelling Washington power play. Robert Roland, CMA's retired president, was charged with reviewing APC, and he recommended that it align itself more closely with CMA.
The move would have been bad for APC's image and hurt its efforts to include processors in its lobbying.
SPI's intervention, processors' complaints and negative publicity helped scuttle the plan, and APC's ties to SPI fortunately remain intact.
Ford is a Plastics News reporter whose beats includes recycling and packaging.