This year the makers of plastic packaging have spent tens of millions of dollars on a major public relations campaign to let you know all the ways that ``plastics make it possible.''
Meanwhile, these same companies are trying to make it impossible for you to learn the truth about what they've done or, more accurately, haven't done to recycle all that plastic.
Every year the American Plastics Council conducts an industry survey to determine how much plastic packaging was recycled. Each spring, the council issues its press release proclaiming plastics recycling a grand success.
Not until several months later are the full survey results released to the public. Each fall the Environmental Defense Fund analyzes the full set of the industry's numbers, only to find that the highly selective figures touted earlier by the council don't begin to tell the whole story about plastics recycling.
Well, apparently the council didn't appreciate having the full story told. So this year they adopted a new policy: The full annual survey results are being denied to the public, with distribution restricted to council members. All the public can get is the spring press release.
And with good reason from the plastics council's perspective, it turns out. Here are what the council's own numbers reveal:
Less than 10 percent of plastic packaging is being recycled, a third the rate for the next closest packaging category, glass.
In contrast to all other major packaging types, growth in recycling of plastic packaging has been at a snail's pace over the last decade, capped with an actual decline over the past year.
Even plastic bottle recycling — the mainstay of plastics recycling and the only numbers the council ever mentions in its publicity — declined in 1996.
Recycling of plastic soda bottles, the industry's only real success story, dropped sharply for the second consecutive year; from 45 percent in 1994 and 41 percent in 1995 to 34 percent in 1996, the lowest level since 1990.
Of particular note is the recycling rate for polystyrene packaging and food-service items, which has hovered around 1.5 percent for the last several years, a rate that makes a mockery of the polystyrene industry's much-touted goal set in 1990, and unceremoniously abandoned last year, of achieving a 25 percent recycling rate by 1995.
As if these statistics weren't bad enough, the cumulative effect of this uniquely poor showing by the plastics industry year after year is especially telling. Each year over the entire period from 1990-1996, for every additional pound of plastic packaging that was recycled, nearly 4 pounds of additional virgin plastic packaging was produced on average. All told this decade, over 13 times more virgin plastic packaging was produced than was recycled.
Why is plastics recycling failing, and why won't the council face up to it? Here are just two examples of problems that thwart recycling but could easily be solved if the will existed:
Single vs. multiple types of plastic. The only plastic packages recycled to any significant extent — soft drink, milk and water bottles — are all made from one type of plastic, easily identified by people for recycling and easily reprocessed.
In contrast, many other consumer products come in different types of plastic that look alike but can't be recycled together (except for low-grade uses such as plastic lumber). This hodgepodge results not from any functional requirement but from short-term economics: These packagers buy the cheapest plastic available at a given time.
Clear vs. colored. Soft drink, milk and water bottles also are generally free of pigments, in contrast to the broad palette of deep pigments used in most plastic bottles for cosmetic reasons.
Companies like Procter & Gamble and Lever Bros. have won praise for using recycled plastic in their bottles.
Ironically, they have done so by cornering the market on clear milk and water jugs, to which they add their trademarked pigments. The next time around, the bottles are lucky to be used even as plastic lumber.
These obvious barriers to plastics recycling illustrate that makers and users of plastic — unlike those of glass, aluminum, steel and paper — have yet to work together to do what is needed to incorporate recovered materials back into the mainstream of production, by designing for recyclability. Instead, plastics recycling remains the poor stepchild of the industry, a fact amply demonstrated by the plastics council's own numbers.
A good first step, however, would be for the council to start telling the truth about plastics recycling.
Denison is a senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.