Conventional wisdom has it that the world of recycling will suffer a huge void when Tom Rattray, one of America's foremost plastics recycling experts, retires from Procter & Gamble Co. For those he calls plastics recycling's ``religious element'' - people who support recycling on ``faith and belief'' - this might be true.
``In the beginning, that religious attitude was fine,'' Rattray said.
Plastics recycling was a novelty in 1988, when he assumed his job at P&G to promote recycling. Dwindling landfill space was a hot topic and states responded with high recycling-rate goals. Working with the Council of Northeastern Governors and the plastics industry's fledgling Council for Solid Waste Solutions, Rattray was there with pledges to keep the stuff out of the dump.
Not that Rattray has ever said that disposed plastics would consume us. Rattray figures that having a 25 percent plastics recycling goal for a given state means that the life of the average landfill would be extended by less than three weeks - ``18 days and six hours, to be exact,'' he said.
At 58 - with three sons still in college - Rattray is retiring as associate director of environmental quality worldwide for the Cincinnati-based consumer-products giant. There will be no successor, he said.
A ceremony marking his contributions to recycling will highlight the National Recycling Coalition's national meeting, scheduled for Sept. 17-19 in Pittsburgh.
Rattray's position has been unusual at P&G, a firm usually reluctant to take a high public profile. But Rattray found himself traveling around the country talking about the state of plastics recycling, touting the firm's recycled-content and source-reduced packaging, and relaying P&G's positions on solid waste issues.
``We have had an unusual position by taking a voluntary role in this field, despite being the end user. It's unusual for any company, and it is for Procter - except toward the environment. We are an open book,'' Rattray said.
He credited now-retired P&G Executive Vice President Tom Laco for the policy.
``It was a good idea and also served to provide us with a good supply'' of less-expensive recycled resin, Rattray said.
Despite his tenure as a go-between among bottle makers, consumer products makers and recycling advocates and resin suppliers, some things remained constant. ``Plastic resins makers still basically see [recycling] as competition,'' he said.
``When I first started this, the price of processing was 20-25 cents a pound,'' he said. ``Now anyone spending 20 cents a pound is in trouble. There are some now in the 15-cent range.''
Associates in recycling praise Rattray. Luke Schmidt, president of the PET-promoting National Association for Plastic Container Recovery in Charlotte, N.C., called Rattray ``one of the biggest supporters in this country of plastics recycling.''
Doug Wadsworth, president of recycler Clearvue Polymers Inc. in Amsterdam, N.Y., said Rattray is ``a high-energy guy who brings quite a bit to the party.''
``He's one of the true visionaries in this business,'' said Dennis Sabourin, vice president for post-consumer procurement and recycling industry affairs for Wellman Inc. in Shrewsbury, N.J., and president of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
``He's made an impact not only for his vision, but also for his clarity. We in the APR are going to miss him sorely, though he's not a reclaimer. He let us know what the market needs were from an end-user standpoint,'' Sa-bourin said.
Rattray said he hopes recycling advocates will work to make the attainment of a plastics-waste-free environment a lucrative venture.
``The public wants to recycle, and they're going to get it. They like plastic, as long as it is part of the [collection] program. If plastics start coming out, then you're going to see another round of legislative actions.''
For manufacturers, too: ``It's very much in the plastics industry's interest that plastic become a viable commodity throughout its price cycles.''
As for predictions, Rattray believes there will be a rapid consolidation in the recycling industry. To break even, a company must process 50 million pounds of plastic per year. Smaller companies, without expansion capital or sophisticated sorting technology, will not survive, he said.
There will be changes in finances. ``Gradually, you're going to have longer-term contracts to take some of the crazy swings out of this business and a settlement of commonly accepted specs.''
He would like to see the Chicago Board of Trade, which now posts recycling contracts, ``set up and established as a place to post public prices that are real and also to adjudicate and promulgate a more level playing field.''
He suggested that Washington-based American Plastics Council ``set someone up as a source of reliable information on recycled [resin] prices - a third party - and they should start teaching people how to write good contracts for both selling flake and pellet and buying bottles. Their barrier to effecting that is gaining the trust of communities and recyclers.''
Rattray said he will consult, but he will not actively seek work. He is going sailing on Lake Michigan and in the tropics.
``I thought this job would go away. I was wrong; it is maturing. Now we're into recycling as an ongoing part of what people do.''