CHICAGO — PET bottle recycling rates are likely to continue to drop in 1997 and 1998, mainly because of the growth of virgin resin production and relatively little growth in curbside recycling programs, according to a new study.
The recycling rate will drop from 26 percent in 1996 to 22 percent this year and 20 percent in 1998, where it probably will hold steady for several years, according to a study from PET recycler Wellman Inc., released at the Society of Plastics Engineers' ARC '97 recycling conference, held Nov. 5-7 in Chicago.
The study also predicts that the volume of PET recycled will decline slightly in 1997, to 564 million pounds, but will rebound starting in 1998, to 611 million pounds. The amount recycled hit a historic high in 1995 — 622 million pounds — and will top that in 1999 with a projected 717 million pounds, Wellman predicted.
The pounds recycled can increase while the rate declines because much more virgin PET is being produced, but a smaller percentage is recycled.
Part of the problem is stagnant curbside recycling programs, said Dennis Sabourin, vice president of post-consumer procurement and recycling affairs for Shrewsbury, N.J.-based Wellman.
``We are projecting now as an industry that curbside recycling will only grow 1 percent a year until the end of the decade, and that may be optimistic,'' he said. ``So it's not a rosy picture.''
Still, demand for recycled PET today exceeds supply, he said. Several PET recyclers have announced capacity increases in recent months, including Pure Tech Plastics, based in Ridgefield, N.J., and Image Industries Inc. of Summerville, Ga.
That means industry must act to keep the recycling infrastructure from crumbling before there is pressure from political or environmental groups, Sabourin said.
``Do we want to have the recycling infrastructure crumble, or do we want to take responsibility ahead of time?'' he said.
Recycling needs to be put on a level playing field with landfilling and incineration, which are not expected to make money but rather are considered government services, Sabourin said.
David Smith, the vice chairman of the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington and a manager of recycling sales for Schmalbach-Lubeca Plastic Containers U.S.A. Inc., said the growth of single-serve PET containers could make it difficult to boost the recycling rate.
The use of such containers will grow at 78 percent a year, according to Sabourin, who also is chairman of APR, but spoke as a representative of Wellman.
Pat Franklin, the executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, said the rate projections did not surprise her, considering that there are not many aggressive efforts to boost curbside recycling.
While political pressure to boost PET recycling remains very quiet, she expects it to increase in the next few years. Officials in New York are having a conference Dec. 9 in Albany on whether the state's returnable beverage container law should be changed.