WASHINGTON — For the first time, California regulators have declared that plastics recycling rates have dropped below state mandates, opening the door to penalties against companies.
The California Integrated Waste Management Board decided in a 5-1 vote Jan. 28 that only 23.2 percent of the state's plastic containers were recycled in 1996, less than the required 25 percent. The recycling rate for PET containers was 35.9 percent, below the 55 percent spelled out in state laws.
The plastics industry questioned the waste board's numbers. The Washington-based American Plastics Council said its figures show 17 percent more high density polyethylene was collected in the state in 1996, not the 25 percent decrease calculated by regulators.
The agency will spend the next few months figuring out what to do, but the board said more must be done to support recycling.
``This board has worked very hard to stimulate the plastics market over the past few years, and we must look even harder to help these fledgling markets stabilize,'' Chairman Dan Pennington said in a statement.
Individual firms can avoid penalties of as much as $150,000 if they use 25 percent recycled content in their materials, can show 10 percent source reduction or make reusable containers.
Companies that make food, beverage and cosmetic packaging do not have to comply with the law, even though they remain part of the recycling-rate calculations.
Sacramento-based Californians Against Waste pressed the agency to require stronger action from the plastics industry.
``What the plastics industry really needs to do is develop markets,'' said CAW spokesman Rick Best. ``... The plastics industry has shown little commitment to developing recycled capacity.''
Local municipalities have written to the waste board describing how they must landfill material collected in their curbside programs, Best said.
But plastics industry officials said the board needs to recheck its numbers.
CIWMB figures show that 60 million pounds of HDPE were recycled in 1996, down from 80 million pounds in 1995, APC officials said. Ron Perkins, APC's director of resource management issues, said curbside collection rose 3 percent in 1996 and HDPE collected rose 17 percent, including a 52 percent increase in Oakland, 24 percent in Los Angeles and 23 percent in San Francisco.
``Unfortunately, the CIWMB certified the 23.2 percent recycling rate based on what appears to be incomplete, unverified and likely flawed information,'' Perkins said.
But CAW said the higher figure in 1995 could have been less accurate because the survey for calculating the rate that year had a return rate of 85 percent, while the 1996 figure had a return rate of more than 99 percent.
APC officials also criticized the first paragraph in the waste board's news release, which states that the board determined the ``amount of recycled-content plastics used in the manufacture of new containers'' fell below state minimum levels.
The board is measuring the recycling rate, not the amount of recycled content, according to Roger Bernstein, vice president of the joint state government affairs unit of APC and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., also of Washington.
``If they are putting out a press release and don't know what they are measuring, what confidence does it give us'' that their recycling rate calculations are accurate, he said.
Waste board spokesman John Frith apologized for the error, but said "the fact remains that the data used to determine the recycling rate were accurate and the recycling rate did fall below the mandated level."