WASHINGTON - Did the American Plastics Council kill plastics recycling? ``Yes,'' said Mark Murray, policy director of Californians Against Waste, a lobbying group advocating a high recycling rate for the state.
He believes the plastics industry is not making sufficient effort to support recycling, unlike its counterparts in aluminum and paper.
The current state of affairs in plastics ``could very well be the death of recycling,'' Murray said, still smarting from the California Legislature's effective repeal Aug. 31 of the state's plastics recycled-content law. The move was supported by retail merchants and resin makers.
``That is absurd,'' said Don Shea, the first full-time staff member of the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, the forerunner of the American Plastics Council.``Neither APC nor its predecessors had the intent of killing off recycling.''
While Washington-based APC has spent substantial sums to improve consumers' attitudes about plastics, that has not meant a corresponding lack of commitment to recycling, he said.
``I thought we were always very clear in being supportive of economically and environmentally sound plastics recycling. We never positioned or advocated plastics recycling as a panacea or a cure-all,'' said Shea, now president of the Washington-based United States Council of Shipping.
``Matter of fact, I think we brought in an element of reality to the discussion -recycling is not the only responsible approach, it's one of a menu.''
However, according to some municipal officials who have worked with the APC or its predecessors since at least 1990, its efforts to promote a recycling infrastructure and markets may have been misdirected, too little and too late to be effective.
Judy Kincaid, solid-waste planning director for the Triangle J Council of Governments of Raleigh, N.C., said ``APC did a small amount of work in a very limited way, and beyond that, we haven't heard anything in the past few years.''
The Triangle J Council includes six counties surrounding Raleigh and the high-technology Research Triangle area. Included in that area is the town of Cary, one of several towns nationwide to participate in a 1992 APC test to prompt recycling.
Kincaid, a lawyer for 16 years before joining the council in 1990, shares with Murray the observation that local governments have been shouldered with researching, conducting and promoting plastics recycling, while paper and metal - materials with a far greater potential of a higher recycling investment return - financed their initial recycling research efforts.
In Cary, Kincaid said, APC helped produce a good collection mechanism program, but couldn't develop markets.
``APC didn't have the control over that,'' she said.
``The short-term benefit of the project was that we learned how to be more efficient collecting plastics. From the long term, the APC didn't come into our region and help us secure markets. That was not in the definition of the project, but it sure would have helped,'' Kincaid said.
Another 1992 APC pilot program was in Garner, N.C. Mark Whitley, city administrative services intern in charge of recycling, said Garner - population 17,254 - will spend $106,000 on recycling this year, but does not break out the cost of collecting plastics. It makes no money on its biweekly curbside program, which took in just under 50 tons of plastic bottles with necks-the only plastic it collects-last year.
Whitley does not know how much APC spent to get the recycling program in Garner going. And it is still going.
``The only thing different is that they don't hand out $100 randomly to curbside participants. That was one of their incentives to get people interested,'' Whitley said.
APC points to several other continuing recycling promotion programs, especially in the western United States.
But Murray said the plastics industry, under the leadership of APC, typically waits for local governments to set up expensive plastics collection programs, and expects the localities to foot the bill for the start-up process.
Now, years later, some localities have tired of funding recycling for its own sake. Some states ``want to part with their plastics collection and processing because they can't make money, but are afraid to for fear of looking like the bad guy,'' Murray said.
``Lots of local governments and recyclers feel abandoned'' by parties that promised to make a recycling commitment, but that now say plastic is not economical to recycle, he said.
But Red Cavaney, president of APC since September 1994, said, ``Plastics recycling is relatively new to the plastics industry and the general public. If you look back to aluminum and paper, the progress that plastics has made over the past five to seven years is equivalent.
It's not fair to take an industry like paper, that has been recycling aggressively since World War II, and compare it with the plastics industry, which is just now moving from its start-up phase. Can we do better? Yes. Should we be unduly alarmed? I don't think so.''
Cavaney said one problem is the low prices for virgin resin.
``We're in one of those historical oversupply situations,'' he said.
A study that APC commissioned by the Ernst & Young accounting firm indicates the plastics industry spent $1 billion between 1990 and 1995 to help communities with recycling equip-ment purchases and research and development.
``For as long as I have been involved in APC, [its members] have continued to strongly support recycling, so long as it is environmentally responsible and economically sustainable,'' Cava-ney said.
``The definition of `economically sustainable' is going to be different for various groups. Our point has been to help [communities and recyclers] develop plans. We continue to invest time, money and energy to help them develop efficiencies,'' he said.