The California state waste board this week may decide not what counts, but how it's counted. Its decision might prove pivotal to the enforcement of California's rigid packaging recycling law.
When it meets this week, the California Integrated Waste Management Board will vote either to accept, reject or take no action regarding the state's method for computing container recycling rates.
The dispute boils down to a choice between accepting a rate-computation method supported by product manufacturers and virgin resin producers, or rejecting it, a course supported by recyclers.
A 1991 state law, modified in 1993, sets minimum expectations and requires annual calculation of recycling rates for two categories of plastic containers sold in Cali-fornia.
The law also assigns responsibility for the calculation to CIWMB.
In July 1995, the board agreed to work with Seattle-based Cas-cadia Consulting Group Inc., a consultant to the American Plas-tics Council, in calculating the state's all-container recycling rate for 1995.
Cascadia's study used an Oregon-originated methodology based on a ``waste characterization'' of various landfills.
Using the Oregon method, the rate was 25.2 percent, based on recycling 156.4 million pounds of containers out of 620.8 million pounds generated. The rate is two-tenths of 1 percent above the state mandate.
Using the conventional method based on national resin sales data, the rate would have been 15.7 percent.
CIWMB ``put itself in an impossible position'' in accepting APC funding, said Joan Edwards of Los Angeles, an independent recycling consultant and a member of the board's Recycling Rate Advisory Committee.
If the study is certified, the action would release heavy polymer users, such as resin makers, bottle-makers and food-industry interests from future recycling mandates. The board meets July 30 in Ukiah and July 31 in Sacra-mento and requires four votes to act. One of six board seats is vacant.
APC and the Grocery Manufac-turers of America, both based in Washington, want certification.
``This determination will ensure that companies can continue to utilize these containers in the state and that California consumers can continue to enjoy the resource conservation benefits of plastic containers,'' said Rod Lowman, APC government affairs vice president.
Recyclers want the board to reject the study. Many believe a lower rate would encourage individuals, communities and environmentalists to use recycled plastics and develop applications. Certification would ``mean our business would fall off,'' said John Shedd, president of recycler Talco Plastics Inc. of Whittier, Calif., and an RRAC member.
``Our biggest problem is lack of market,'' he said.
Shedd was skeptical: ``With so much at stake and the wide disparity between the 25.2 percent and 15.7 percent rates, I have deep concern about the validity of either rate.''
CIWMB member Wesley Chesbro of Arcata said he ``had serious concerns about the validity of APC's 25.2 percent rate.''
On July 17, the board's Local Assistance and Planning Commit-tee, which Chesbro chairs, turned back a staff recommendation to accept APC/Cascadia conclusions but forwarded the item to the full board. Janet Gotch of Napa, Calif., sided with Chesbro in the LAP committee's 2-to-1 vote; Robert Frazee of Carlsbad opposed.
``There was not an adequate explanation for the difference between rates,'' Chesbro said.
Staff was asked to evaluate enforcement implications, raising speculation that indecision may lead to nonenforcement of the 25 percent mandate.
``In the future, the board must develop a recycling rate that is more dependable and is based on a consensus from a wider range of industry groups,'' Chesbro said.
Recycling consultant Edwards said the Cascadia methodology was fraught with ``major potential problems'' and ``the numbers don't jibe.''
Edwards' concerns were heightened when industry rushed to support Senate Bill 1155, a measure to repeal the 25 percent mandate, before the recycling-rate report came out.
``APC made no secret of the fact that it and its major members are pulling back from recycling,'' Edwards said.
Once Union Carbide Corp. closes its high density polyethylene recycling plant in New Jersey Oct. 1, Phillips Petroleum Co. will remain as the only major North American producer of virgin HDPE with significant in-house recycling capabilities.
The methodology determined ``a diversion rate'' and ``not a recycling rate at all,'' according to Dennis Sabourin, chairman of the Association of Post-consumer Plastic Recyclers and vice president of Wellman Inc. of Shrews-bury, N.J.
``The Cascadia study has been like an experimental drug whose benefits must be weighed against its pitfalls,'' according to Michael Kopulsky of Encino, an RRAC member.
Defending the methodology, Lowman said, ``The model came from Oregon, which went through the process of evaluating alternatives for determining its rigid plastic container recycling rate.''
He said the Oregon methodology ``is virtually identical to the one conducted by APC in Calif-ornia.''
Oregon's Department of Envi-ronmental Quality found ``surveys of recycling companies in the state and localized waste characterizations were superior to any of the other alternatives,'' Lowman said.
``They realized that nationwide sales and recycling statistics, while very helpful for their intended purposes for national use, could not be adequately tailored for state enforcement purposes,'' he said.
In California, rigid plastic containers and those of PET fall into categories with different recycling rates.