WASHINGTON — Recyclers are raising concerns about the introduction of a new, pigmented, high density polyethylene milk bottle, claiming it could ``absolutely destroy'' the market for what lately has been a mainstay of plastics recycling.
One of New England's largest dairies, HP Hood Inc. in Chelsea, Mass., introduced a white plastic bottle Oct. 20 that the company says protects milk from light that causes it to lose vitamins and taste.
Some dairies, including a Tennessee subsidiary of Franklin Park, Ill.-based Dean Foods Co., have been using pigmented plastic milk jugs for years. Dairy industry officials said they have no solid figures on the number of dairies making colored bottles. The officials say they do not want to harm recycling but are taking a close look at pigmented bottles as one way to boost their stagnant market share in the beverage industry.
The problem for recyclers is that pigmented resin is worth about 60 percent of the value of natural HDPE, and milk bottles make up more than half of the HDPE recycling stream in some parts of the country.
``This would absolutely destroy the HDPE homopolymer recycling stream, particularly if this takes off with other dairies as well,'' said Dennis Sabourin, chairman of the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and vice president of post-consumer procurement for Shrewsbury, N.J.-based Wellman Inc.
In 1996, HDPE recycling grew as other markets suffered, eclipsing PET as the most-recycled bottle resin in the United States, according to figures from the American Plastics Council in Washington.
``Who knows, it could be white today and chartreuse tomorrow, in which case you've destroyed the No. 1 market,'' said Bruce Fortin, vice president of EnviroPlastics Corp., an HDPE recycler in Auburn, Mass.
If two or three other dairies in New England follow Hood's lead, ``you would have a major impact on the flow out of New England,'' Fortin said. ``Profit margins will fall and we will lose business.''
Whether it will take off with other dairies seems hard to say.
``We are on the verge of seeing whether a lot of people will do it, or whether just these few companies will do it,'' said Rob Byrne, director of product safety and technology for the Washington-based International Dairy Foods Association.
The dairy industry is fiercely price-competitive, and Byrne estimates it costs a half-cent a bottle to add color.
But the industry also is worried because its share of the beverage industry — or ``share of stomach'' as it is called — fell from 10.7 percent in 1989 to 10.2 percent in 1996, according to Alan Levitt, senior analyst with the Jerry Dryer Group, a Chicago food industry consulting firm.
``Milk's per-capita [consumption] has been relatively stagnant to flat over the last 15-20 years,'' Levitt said. ``It used to be this commodity thing that you threw in paper or plastic and people bought it because it was part of the lifestyle. But they don't anymore.''
The industry has advertised heavily, and some dairies are starting to make single-serve bottles to sell to on-the-go customers at convenience stores, mirroring the single-serve 20-ounce PET soft drink bottles that plastics officials say have contributed to PET's recycling problems.
Cornell University studies have found that 50 percent of some vitamins in milk may be lost after 24 hours of fluorescent light exposure, according to an HP Hood news release. But Byrne said there is no strong evidence that the light in the dairy case affects most vitamins in milk packaged in plastic or paper.
The colored plastic jugs still are recyclable, which was important to HP Hood, said Peter Ross, vice president of marketing. The dairy makes its own blow molded bottles.
``We feel like we have a lot of responsibility,'' he said. ``The product is recyclable. ... The energy consumption to produce the resin [colored or clear] is exactly the same.''
HP Hood claims about 8-10 percent of the New England milk market, but Ross would not estimate the number of colored plastic bottles it ships because it does some packaging for other labels. But natural-color plastic bottles generally account for 85 percent of milk sales, the company said.