WASHINGTON — The recycling rate for plastic bottles and rigid containers is likely to drop for 1996, the first such decline since the American Plastics Council began collecting the figures in the late 1980s, APC officials said.
APC still is analyzing the numbers, and final figures will not be available for at least a month, but the rate is ``probably likely to be down,'' APC President Red Cavaney said in an April 4 interview.
While the rate may drop, Cavaney said the figures will show that more pounds of plastic are being recycled. That growth is just not keeping pace with a larger increase in the amount of virgin plastic resin used in bottles and rigid containers, he said.
Industry officials and observers differed on whether the rate drop reflects less industry commitment to recycling or whether it merely means plastics recycling is suffering from the ups-and-downs of any commodity
The potential rate downturn also comes as APC predicts support from all 50 state governments for local recycling efforts will drop from $171 million in 1996 to $152 million this year and $126 million in 1998, in part because states will be assuming more responsibility for welfare reform and other traditionally federal issues.
The overall recycling rate for plastic containers rose to 18 percent in 1995, a 0.8 percent increase from 1994, the last full year for which APC figures are available.
Recycling rates for PET also may decline in 1996, after falling two percentage points in 1995, said Quinn Davidson, director of communications for the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery in Charlotte, N.C.
Rates for PET declined to 32 percent in 1995 from 34 percent the previous year, even while the amount recycled increased from 565 million pounds to 622 million pounds, NAPCOR said.
``We don't know if it's an anomaly or a trend,'' because last year was the first that PET rates dropped, she said. ``It's something we continue to watch.''
The culprit, so to speak, is the market, according to Cavaney.
Resin manufacturers brought on extra capacity last year in response to high prices, which in turn lowered prices and hurt both resin manufacturers and recyclers. The APC chief said, ``Do you think they [resin companies] all feel happy that their virgin prices have gone down? No, they have to live with the same cyclicality that recycling has.''
But it is precisely that extra capacity that causes Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, to question the resin industry's commitment to recycling.
``I don't know where their commitment is when they are destroying the economics of recycling by dumping this virgin resin on the market,'' Franklin said.
Although more plastic is being recycled, the U.S. still is throwing away twice as much PET in 1995 as in 1990, she said.
Cavaney said the industry brought on extra capacity in response to high prices and high demand, and he said antitrust laws prevent manufacturers from talking about how their separate expansion plans will affect the market.
``All of us, I think, feel for the recyclers who are in this [and] who are going through the tough times.''
Cavaney said the industry's commitment to recycling remains strong, and noted that APC spent $300,000 last year to boost the capacity of the Garten Foundation's model processing center in Salem, Ore., five times, to 500,000 pounds a month. APC officials also noted they have had success boosting recycling rates in Sacramento and Los Angeles, raising Sacramento's rate 16 percent.
He said recycling infrastructure is growing, too, even as some high-profile operations at Union Carbide Corp. and the Plastic Recycling Alliance curtailed operations. The number of facilities accepting post-consumer plastics grew to 1,705 last year, and PET and HDPE reclaimers said capacity increased by 40 million pounds in the first half of 1996, according to APC.
NAPCOR's Davidson claims the plastics industry remains committed to recycling, that the infrastructure is in ``adequate shape,'' and said ``it's worse in the sense that we've lost reclaimers'' and the decline in markets added uncertainty.
A decline in the plastics recycling rate is not a cause for concern because recycling for most materials is flattening out, said J. Winston Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center in Leesburg, Va. Porter, a former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator, predicted 1996 will be the first year the recycling rate for all materials will be flat since the EPA in 1988 set the national recycling goal of 25 percent.
The rate for paper recycling rose slightly in 1996, to 44.8 percent from 44.4 percent. The rate for glass rose 2 percent in 1995 to 37 percent. Glass recycling figures for 1996 are not available. Aluminum can recycling, on the other hand, rose 1.3 percent to 63.5 percent in 1996, after dropping 3.2 percent the previous year, according to association figures. The number of cans shipped and the pounds of aluminum collected dropped, however.