WASHINGTON - The American Plastics Council on June 20 released - or rather downplayed - the results of its annual recycling rate study. As some recyclers expected, the industry failed to reach its goal to recycle 25 percent of rigid bottles and containers.
The recycling rate objective was established in 1991 by APC's predecessor, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions.
Instead of a traditional news release announcing the rate-study results, Washington-based APC sent out the four-page report, ``Resource Conservation and Plastics - A State of Progress.'' The report did not mention the recycling rate until the second page.
``The emphasis is not recycling; resource conservation is the bigger issue,'' said Susan Moore, APC's vice president for communications.
Although APC's commitment to recycling is the ``same as always,'' Moore noted, ``We do not believe numerical goals do much to foster resource conservation.''
According to the new APC figures, the recycling rate of all plastic bottles rose between 1994 and 1995 by 1 percent, to 22 percent, and for high density polyethylene bottles by 2 percent, to 19 percent.
The recycling rate for PET bottles dropped 2 percent, to 30 percent, in part because of the increased amount of virgin PET resin produced in 1995. The actual number of pounds of PET recycled increased 6 percent.
Some 18 percent of all plastic bottles and rigid containers were recycled in 1995, an increase of 0.8 percent compared with 1994, the study showed.
Moore said the recycling rate may have suffered last year, in part, because inventories of warehoused plastics were drained in late 1994 and early 1995 to take advantage of a big spike in prices for recycled plastics.
Another explanation comes from Tom Rattray, associate director of environmental quality for Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati, who said the slowing increase in the amount of plastic bottles and containers recycled ``is consistent with the rate of increase in the number of collection programs.''
Plus, added Rattray, ``My understanding is that certain plastics are getting smuggled into mainland China,'' reducing the amount available for recycling in the United States.
Richard Denison, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund based in New York, complained that, as usual, APC released only the recycling-rate data for bottles and containers, leaving out data on flexible packaging and other plastic products. Those statistics, Denison contends, will be in the complete report from consultant R.W. Beck and Associates, which will be released later.
``The 1994 R.W. Beck report includes all other [plastic] packaging. So why aren't they [the APC] including those numbers? My conclusion is that those numbers always look much worse than those for bottles and containers. When you add all packaging, it will be dramatically lower,'' Denison said.
For example, said Denison, in the 1994 Beck study, plastic bottles were recycled at a 21 percent rate. But all plastics were recycled at a 7.6 percent rate, according to the report.
Moore said media pressure for information prompted the release of the bottle and container recycling figures.
Rattray defended the release of partial information.
``They want to make sure they get it right and they want to make sure what they report jibes with other sources," according to Rattray.
"Their report comes from a lot of people with a lot of chunks of input to the data,'' he said.
Denison disagreed with the industry's current de-emphasis of recycling.
``We should seek to maximize - greatly increase - the amount of plastics recycled,'' Denison said.
"I'm not sure every resin type should be recycled equally, but the problem is that the diversity of resin types used in virtually identical applications has become a barrier to recycling more plastics as a whole,'' he said.
While plastic bottle and container recycling may have leveled off, the statistics revealed an unexplained drop in virgin resin sold to bottle manufacturers.
According to the survey, the quantity of all resins - virgin and recycled - used to manufacture plastic bottles dropped from about 5.12 billion to about 5.07 billion pounds, from 1994 to 1995. Moore could not explain the decrease.
``It could be that plastics manufacturers had resin in inventory from the year previous and didn't buy as much for bottles. Or it could be that source reduction has reduced the amount of plastics going into the making of bottles,'' Moore said.
"We don't know for sure; we do not attempt to analyze the statistics,'' she said.