WASHINGTON - The American Plastics Council is distancing itself from a 25 percent recycling rate goal set by its predecessor organizations. The shift came to light as APC prepares its 1995 recycling rate data, and amid speculation that the plastics industry will not meet the goal.
``The idea of rates, dates, mandates ... numerical goals, is all very artificial,'' said APC spokeswoman Susan Moore.
Moore strongly emphasized that the group's move away from the overall recycling goal does not signal a lack of commitment to plastics recycling as a whole.
"Our goal is to increase recycling,'' she said. "We are very much committed to increased recycling.''
The objective, to recycle 25 percent of post-consumer bottles and containers by 1995, was set in 1991 by the Council for Solid Waste Solutions and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and reaffirmed by APC in April 1992 when it was known as the Partnership for Plastics Progress.
Moore pointed out that the plastics industry has achieved other goals that CSWS set in 1991 - for example, to provide 50 percent of U.S. residents access to plastics recycling programs.
Red Cavaney, president and chief executive officer of APC, said the 25 percent target is not as important as it once was.
``In the early 1990s the public focus was very much on targets, and they seemed the most easily explained way of showing that something was being done,'' Cavaney said in a telephone interview. ``But what has happened in the industry since is that it has progressed beyond targets and rates and dates. There is nothing magic about 25 percent''
Cavaney said APC also has gone beyond rates to address what it sees as the impediments to making recycling of plastic possible and desirable.
``We have worked very hard and spent a great deal of money to improve on collection and technical advancements, which are some of the hands-on impediments.''
Cavaney said he does not know whether the APC's survey of recyclers, due to be released this summer, will show bottle recycling at a 25 percent rate or not, but denied that that has anything to do with the shift in emphasis.
``I have no doubt that in time the rate will go beyond 25 percent, but we have to continue to work at removing the barriers,'' he said.
In 1994, R.W. Beck and Associates, the Seattle consulting firm that prepares and analyzes the yearly APC recycling rate survey, reported that recycling had grown 21 percent from 1993. The report, released in mid-1995, made no mention of the 25 percent goal, or of how near the goal the estimated 1 billion pounds recycled was.
Instead, last year's study noted a 21 percent increase in bottle recycling from the previous year, a 21.3 percent recycling rate for all plastic bottles.
Some leaders expect that recycling rates for PET and high density polyethylene bottles may actually show a decrease when figures are published for 1995, not because fewer were recycled, but because more virgin resin was sold last year.
"It's going to be a tough one to explain,'' said Edgar Miller, policy director of the National Recycling Coalition.
The growth in curbside recycling programs is slowing ``because we've seen so many programs start up. I think you will see a leveling off,'' Miller said.
Miller explained that when resin production makes more virgin plastics available, and recycling programs reinforce the market with salable products, the overall plastics market grows faster than the market for recycled plastics, so the rate of recycling decreases.
That evidence is the main explanation given for the expected decline in PET recycling rates nationwide in 1995.
Marty Forman, owner of Poly-Anna Technologies Inc., a plastic lumber company in Milwaukee, and a longtime recycling booster, said the APC's shift in emphasis away from the 25 percent rate should be viewed in perspective.
``I think APC found itself embroiled in the late '80s and early '90s in the frenzy over recycling,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``So their emphasis became tied to the call for rates and dates and goals. A lot of people believed then it [achieving a 25 percent recycling rate] could not be done, but APC went in and proved that significant recycling could be done.''
Forman, who also owns a scrap metal business, and is a member of the National Recycling Coalition's board of directors, said now there is less of a call for specific recycling rates and dates to achieve them.
``In the last two years or so, APC has been able to return finally to its original focus, which was to take a menu approach with source reduction, reuse and other forms of recycling like incineration being developed,'' he said.
Karl Kamena, a former director of governmental affairs for Dow Chemical Co., and a major force in the early days of the APC, said backing off the rate and date approach is wise.
``They were caught in a rate and date frenzy,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``There was pressure to set rates and dates because the fear was that if they didn't, the government would set worse ones.
``Recycling rates are always tied closely to collection, and the market has to dictate, and I was always afraid that by setting a goal, they were setting themselves up for failure.''
Kamena now is manager of sales and marketing for Nanocor Inc., of Grand Rapids, Mich., a clay and plastic composite material developer and producer.
Barry Polsky, spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, a Washington-based industry policy and lobbying group similar to APC, said it would be inappropriate to comment on the idea that APC may have backed away from its goal.
``We have been successful in attaining our goals,'' he said of the paper industry. ``We are at 45 percent, and want to get to 50 percent of all paper recycled by the year 2000. That last 5 percent will be very difficult, and will be mostly in the office paper category.''
The plastics industry took a beating in the early 1990s from recyclers in the paper and metal scrap industries who claimed that plastic recycling goals were unrealistic, and that plastic was less recyclable than their products.
A Pennsylvania recycling authority who asked not to be identified also noted the recycling rate for used and waste PET and HDPE - neither of which are garnering the per-bale price of a year ago - is dropping.
``I can't see how anything else will happen'' than a reduction in the recycling rates, he said. ``A year ago, cities were getting 30 cents a pound for what they're getting 10 cents a pound for now.''
Others, including the author of the as-yet unreleased Environ-mental Protection Agency study of the makeup of solid waste in America, said since plastics collection rates are going up, so must plastics recycling rates.
A government-sponsored study with statistics a year old shows the recovery rate of common container plastics growing. Marjorie Franklin, president of Franklin Associates, an environmental research firm in Prairie Village, Kan., said ``based on our sources, which use 1994 figures, we believe the recycling rate is going up.''
The figures, she said, are for durable and nondurable goods, containers and packaging as published in the annual ``Characteri-zation of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States - 1995 Update'' prepared for the EPA and released by Franklin to its participants March 15.
An EPA spokeswoman in Washington, Lauren Mical, said on March 18 that the Franklin report is not yet available to the public.
Franklin said the study shows recovery rates for PET in curbside and dropoff collection programs in the United States, as a percent of that plastic generated, went from 41 percent in 1993 to 50 percent in 1994, and from 24 to 30 percent for HDPE.
Regardless of the year-to-year fluctuations in the plastic container recycling rates, other problems are on the horizon for the business of recycling.
``We're concerned about trends that show that companies might want to invest in virgin instead of recycled,'' Miller said. ``One issue is the price volatility of the recycled market - virgin does not have such dramatic price swings.
``Also, quality and quantity. Both are somewhat unpredictable in the recycling community. So we've got a challenge from the recycling community's point of view to stabilize the marketplace. If we don't, investors will be looking to more predictable materials,'' he added.
Plastics News managing editor Don Loepp contributed to this story.