WASHINGTON — The recycling rate for plastic bottles and rigid containers fell for the first time ever in 1996, and an American Plastics Council report on the figures suggests improvements are not coming anytime soon in the PET markets that drive much recycling.
APC also rewrote its rules for calculating the rate this year, adopting a method used by other industries that allowed the trade group to revise past years' figures and raise the historical baseline the report draws from.
Here's the upshot: The overall rate for bottles and rigid containers fell from 22.2 percent in 1995 to 21.2 percent last year.
But before the recalculation —which APC says is needed to bring plastics in line with how other materials report data to the Environmental Protection Agency — the 1995 rate for those same bottles and containers was 17.9 percent, more than four percentage points lower than the revised number.
``We changed the figures to make us look like other industries and, more importantly, to better align us to the methods used by the EPA,'' said APC spokeswoman Susan Kissler.
Now, APC measures recycling by using the amount of materials collected, rather than the amount of recycled materials that become part of finished products, she said.
An EPA report on municipal garbage released last month said making the switch means ``the plastics data are now more consistent with the data reported for the other materials.'' APC data is the primary source for the government report's data on plastics, EPA said.
Another plastics trade group, the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery in Charlotte, N.C., still bases its rates for PET on material used in finished products because it more precisely measures the amount of material recycled, said NAPCOR President Luke Schmidt.
NAPCOR found about 570 million pounds of PET were recycled — a 26 percent rate — while APC found about 630 million pounds recycled, for a rate of 29.1 percent.
``It is not NAPCOR's intent to throw stones at anybody else's report,'' Schmidt said. ``Our number is an accurate reflection of what is truly recycled.''
Using the material collected, rather than what becomes part of the finished product, is ``a good [public relations] tool but I don't think it tells you exactly what is being recycled,'' said Kay Stevens, executive director of the Nebraska State Recycling Association in Omaha.
NAPCOR reported 60 million fewer pounds recycled because that material is discarded because it is contaminated with food or grime, or it may be the wrong kind of plastic, said Charles McLendon, senior project manager with R.W. Beck, the consulting firm that prepares the APC study.
When APC and NAPCOR used the same method, their numbers were similar, making it likely that the different methods now account for much of the difference, he said. Schmidt said most of the material that does not make it into finished products goes to landfills.
Richard Denison, a senior scientist with the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, said that ``suggests that the amount of waste produced in plastics recycling is large.'' But, McLendon said that losing about 10 percent of the material is typical for recycling.
Using the new calculation method, APC's report found that the recycling rate for all plastic bottles was 25 percent, down from 26.1 percent in 1995. The amount of bottle plastics that were recycled rose, however, from 1.27 billion pounds in 1995 to 1.3 billion last year.
The rate for high density polyethylene bottles increased from 23.4 percent to 24.4 percent, but Kissler said APC officials were not sure why.
Other materials tell a split picture, with PVC bottles and low density PE bottles remaining unchanged with 2 percent and 0.2 percent rates, respectively, Kissler said. Polypropylene bottles increased from 2.7 percent in 1995 to 4 percent, while polystyrene packaging decreased from a 6.7 percent rate in 1995 to 5.7 percent last year, APC said.
Denison said the APC report does not detail how virgin production increases outstrip recycling gains, and he said the APC press release focuses on bottle recycling when the numbers for other plastics packaging are much lower.
Virgin production for PET and HDPE bottles rose 15 times faster than the amount of additional bottles recycled in 1996, which raises questions about the industry's commitment, he said.
``The industry has a history of trying to have the entirety of plastic recycling ride on the coattails of plastic bottles,'' particularly PET, he said.
The APC statement released June 6 includes only data for all bottles and the two largest subcategories, PET and HDPE bottles.
But APC said the industry spent more than $1 billion in the United States since 1990 to support plastics reclamation, and Kissler said ``we helped jump- start the plastics recycling infrastructure. Our commitment is as strong as ever.''
She said the full report, which includes data on other packaging, is not complete and will be out next month. People want numbers as soon as possible, so APC releases some figures as soon as they are available, she said.
According to APC's report, some industry experts expect current market conditions in PET to continue for several years, and additional new production is coming on line, ``further impacting'' recycling's potential. APC officials have said companies cannot be expected to hold off adding production in a competitive market.
APC said the growth of single-serve PET bottles and strong competition from other materials in secondary PET markets, such as fiber, also contributed. But Pat Franklin, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, said the low price of virgin resin was the primary cause of the decrease in PET recycling. The PET soda bottle recycling rate fell to 39 percent in 1996, from 46 percent in 1995, she said.