A fight has broken out between the recycling community and the plastics industry. How it started and how it may end will tell us much about what is going on behind the scenes of one of America's favorite pastimes. The fight started because prices for virgin PET have been falling, taking with them the price manufacturers are willing to pay for used bottles. Some manufacturers who used recovered PET in the past have switched to the cheaper virgin PET or lowered the recycled content of their products.
The president of Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin recently issued a call to the general public ``to boycott plastic soft drink and water bottles until minimum-content laws have been enacted.'' Minimum-content laws require manufacturers to include at least the specified amount of recycled material in their products.
In theory, such laws would create a stronger demand for used bottles. The major users of packaging oppose minimum-content laws, which require them to use packaging that is more expensive than or inferior to what they otherwise would use.
Both sides of the fight agree that recycling plastic poses unique challenges. Different types of plastic need to be separated before recycling can occur, and depending on the intended use of the new product, containers may need to be cleaned before they can be processed. Both steps are labor-intensive and therefore expensive.
At the root of the problem is the fact that prices for many virgin materials are at historic lows, while many cities (including Chicago) have opened recycling centers, greatly increasing the supply of recovered material. Minimum-content laws for plastic packaging may appear to recyclers to be an easy answer, but like so many ``easy'' solutions, minimum-content laws fail to address the real problem.
In a normal marketplace, falling prices trigger reduced supply. This seldom happens in the recycling industry because a growing fraction of the supply is being produced by government agencies or private companies required to divert a certain percentage of solid waste from landfills through recycling. Until such recycling mandates are repealed, or at least are set at more reasonable levels, episodes of oversupply and fluctuating prices will continue to occur.
The low cost of natural gas (the feedstock for most types of plastic) and the great efficiency with which plastic products are manufactured make it unlikely that used bottles could ever compete, unsubsidized, for more than a small share of a new bottle market. Recyclers refuse to accept these facts and insist on levels of recovery that are not economical.
Settling for whatever level of collection is achieved through voluntary recovery and recycling would seem to be the preferred alternative.
Unrecycled plastic bottles hardly constitute a threat to the environment: plastic bottles account for only about 1 percent of the municipal solid waste stream and pose no threat to human health or the environment when put in landfills. They are an ideal fuel for electricity-producing incinerators since they release large amounts of heat relative to their weight and volume.
If a minimum-content law leads some manufacturers to substitute glass containers for plastic ones, the weight and volume of glass making its way into landfills would exceed that of the plastic bottles they replace. Since glass containers require more energy to manufacture and transport than do plastic containers, the net environmental effect of a minimum-content law would almost certainly be negative.
Facts such as these suggest that some recyclers are putting their financial self-interest above their concern for what is best for the environment. Consider this fact: The person now calling for a boycott of PET bottles is also the recycling coordinator for Madison, Wis. Two years ago, when commodity prices were high, the city boasted that recycling generated a net profit of $226,000. There was no talk then of mandating minimum content or boycotting plastic soft drink bottles.
Recyclers may be about to become just another interest group, pleading for special legislation that would protect them from the discipline of the market. Granting their request for minimum-content laws, however, would do nothing to help the recycling movement in the long run and would do more harm than good to the environment.
Recycling has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry supported by the good will of millions of Americans who voluntarily sort their household waste. It is not asking too much that recyclers should play by the rules of the system that enabled them to succeed.
Bast is president of the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research institute in Palatine, Ill., and co-uthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism.