Carol Shebaberle joined Quantum Chemical Co. in Cincinnati in 1989 as a recycling coordinator. It was a high-profile job, important because of the nation's new interest in plastics recycling.
She initially focused on bottle collection programs and later helped design a corporate-owned high density polyethylene recycling plant.
But like her company - and, some argue, the plastics industry in general - Shebaberle's career took a turn away from recycling.
She transferred to a position as a regulatory affairs manager, and today she is the company's contact person for the Chemical Manufacturing Association's Responsible Care program.
Now instead of recycling, she evaluates and documents business-management practices designed to be environmentally friendly.
Meantime, the plastics recycling plant she helped design in Heath, Ohio, shut down 18 months ago, and Quantum may be on the brink of selling the property.
Quantum is not alone.
In the past year, a series of actions suggests that the commitment to recycling made by the plastics industry just five years ago is disappearing.
Solid-waste issues no longer are on the public front burner, and plastics companies today feel free to drop expensive recycling programs to concentrate on more profitable enterprises.
Union Carbide Corp.'s HDPE recycling plant in Piscataway, N.J., is closing its doors.
The Center for Plastics Recycling Research at Rutgers University will close Oct. 1, the victim of diminishing industry funding.
After several years of industry lobbying, the California Legislature caved in Aug. 31 and gutted its packaging recycling law.
The law's most-significant articles, which would have encouraged minimum levels of recycled content in food containers, were dropped.
The American Plastics Council quietly sacked what was in 1991 the centerpiece of its plastics recycling program - a commitment to recycle 25 percent of rigid bottles and containers by 1995.
The effort came up short, but neither the failure nor the abandonment of the goal resulted in a significant public outcry.
Instead of recycling, corporate managers today take what they consider to be a bigger-picture approach on issues of environmental responsibility.
For example, some companies have replaced recycling initiatives with environmental standards, such as ISO 14000 certification, as an indicator of the extent of their environmental preservation commitment, said Lynn Scarlett, a Reason Foun-dation project director.
Shebaberle said, ``Quantum's view always has been that a program cannot exist on recycling alone.''
Plastics, due to its inherent light weight, traditionally is difficult to recycle.
Collection programs can be much more expensive than for materials such as metal and glass.
``Plastic is already a very efficient material. It requires very little oil to make a lot of shrink wrap,'' said Scarlett. ``Recycling's value is in materials where there is embedded energy, such as aluminum cans.''
Recycled plastics do not have the same embedded value, she said.
``To reuse it is not capturing a lot of energy.''
The Flexible Packaging Association believes the reduced emphasis on plastics recycling and environmental issues in general ``sends a message that the public is satisfied that progress is being made,'' said Marjorie Valin, director of public relations and marketing for the Washington-based FPA.
``Consumers can afford to turn their attention to the economy and crime because they are comfortable with the huge strides manufacturers have made in preventing waste and curbing pollutants,'' Valin said.
But will people stop recycling?
No, said Scarlett. The legacy of the emotional side of recycling has left the public with a strong set of values about the need to recycle.
The quandary left is for managers, who must concern themselves with a company's environmental commitment, to incorporate environmental incentives into daily life, according to Scarlett.
Invariably, Scarlett said, that will include the practice of recycling.
She calls the current state of recycling ``a reality check.''
Time was when plastics had vocal opponents, looking to place blame for the very existence of environmentally dangerous polymers and to shame the public into avoiding the plastics scourge.
Opponents claimed plastics were a major contributor to overflowing landfills.
Now, even strident recycling advocates at the Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste admit plastics amount to a single-digit percentage of waste disposed in landfills.
The adversarial contests between recycling advocates and plastics producers, especially in the packaging industry, have grown peaceful.
``Shorn of its ideological trappings, recycling is essentially a process of innovation,'' wrote Alexander Volokh, a recycling researcher with the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.
Volokh made his observation in a paper outlining market possibilities for recycled materials in food packaging - a concept that has gained serious support among recyclers and packaging producers in only the past three years.
As Shebaberle's career has changed, so has the role recycling plays in the use - and reuse - of plastics.
Although she points to a vastly greater industry understanding of what can be recycled effectively since her first job with Quantum, Shebaberle said she wonders how much of this understanding the public has picked up along the way.
``What you've seen is the industry maturing. After all, infants need a lot of care and attention to survive. Now, [recycling] is surviving on its own. That's how it has to function.''
J. Winston Porter, former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator, said that the hard-cash value of collected plastic will not be as great as other recoverable products such as corrugated cardboard - unless prices for virgin resins skyrocket.
``Plastics are going to be a net loser in recycling,'' said Porter, who is now president of the Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va.
``In spite of the good work of the PET recyclers especially, they're just too light and inexpensive to recycle and there are too many types. It is not in the cards to recycle a huge amount of plastics,'' Porter said.
``The curve of recycling is leveling off at 25-30 percent,'' said Porter, sticking to the numbers he has preached since his years in the Reagan Administration's EPA.
``Any more than that, and the recycling becomes too expensive to turn a profit.
``Of course, you can do anything if you want to put the money into it,'' he said.