Maybe I'm naive. I always thought one of the points of recycling is to keep material from landfills. If you're going to measure recycling rates, the thinking goes, you'd want to measure as close as possible what's being diverted from garbage dumps.
But that's not what the American Plastics Council decided to do this summer, when it changed to a method adopted by the other big materials.
That method measures what's collected to be recycled, not what is actually recycled and included in finished product. Some of what's collected — labels, contaminated plastics or other trash — is discarded and makes its way back to landfills, but will be included in the inflated new plastics ``recycling'' rate.
Using the old method, the 1995 overall rate for plastic bottles and rigid containers was 17.9 percent. With the new method, it jumped to 22.2 percent
From a public relations and political point of view, it's easy to understand why APC would make the switch. Why would plastic want to get beat up any more than necessary in the recycling stats wars? But not everyone in the plastics industry agrees.
The major trade group for PET recycling, the National Association for Plastic Container Recovery, decided to take the high road and stick with measuring what actually makes its way into recycled- content products, arguing that it is an ``accurate reflection of what is truly recycled.''
Besides being in line with other industries, APC said the new method follows ``EPA's recommended methodology.'' Not quite.
The Environmental Protection Agency basically has to accept whatever statistics industry gives it, and does not endorse any calculation method, said Eugene Lee, an environmental protection specialist at EPA.
Given that EPA has to take what the industry feeds it, it's a stretch to put the mantle of EPA approval around what is essentially a political and public relations decision by APC.
The National Soft Drink Association faces related charges of manipulating data, after it reported a big increase in PET containers recycled, while NAPCOR, using consistent methods, reported a drop in the raw amount of PET containers recycled.
NSDA used a collection method in presenting its 1996 figures for PET bottles, but it used the lower finished product figures for 1995, providing an inflationary boost. NSDA officials said they are not manipulating data because they relied on APC figures.
But both NSDA's recalculation and APC's switch leave those among us who are naive again wondering what exactly is the purpose of ``recycling'' statistics.
Toloken is Plastics News' Washington-based staff writer.