When Los Angeles resident Jeanie Cunningham learned that some of the plastics she had been sorting for recycling for years instead were being landfilled, she went to the state capital to attend a legislative hearing and deliver an Easter basket of the unrecyclables.
That bit of political theater is an extreme expression of a point made by environmentalists and some government officials — that the plastics industry needs to boost demand for recycled plastics.
But industry, including recyclers, argue that supply of recycled materials is the problem, not lack of demand.
The supply vs. demand question is at the center of political debates. A White House conference on recycling is slated for the fall, and California officials plan to start by looking at demand.
The Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers has been holding workshops for local officials and recycling collectors to boost supply.
``We are trying to get across that we have more capacity than we can find materials for right now,'' said Jerry Weis, senior vice president of Environmental Products Inc. in Riverside, Calif. and the chairman of APR's market development committee.
But the Gordian knot facing plastics recyclers is that communities want more assurances of stable markets before they invest in collecting, said Edgar Miller, policy director for the National Recycling Coalition in Alexandria, Va.
Wisconsin tried to deal with the demand side of the problem in the early 1990s. The state put a surcharge on businesses and in return the packaging and plastics industries agreed to develop markets for recycled material, according to Susan Hundt Bergan, recycling team leader for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
But markets for some plastics never developed. Several years later, in 1994, the state decided local governments no longer had to collect some types of plastic. Bergan faults the industry for not doing enough.
``We're seeing a big public relations effort from the plastics industry,'' she said. ``Our local recycling coordinators, whose job it is to develop markets, say, `How about channeling half of that money into practical, on-the- ground efforts to develop markets for materials?'''
Robert Haley, San Francisco recycling coordinator, said local officials understand that plastics recycling is complicated by the variety of resins and incompatibility between blow molded and injection molded containers made from the same resin.
Manufacturers and government should play a larger role because the public wants to recycle, said Haley, who used to work in the plastics industry.
``One of the most popular phone calls we get is, `Why can't I recycle this plastic?''' he said.
According to the American Plastics Council, markets for plastics other than PET and high density polyethylene do not exist because other materials are such a small part of the container stream.
APC figures for 1996 indicate the packaging market comprised 2.4 billion pounds of PET, 4.5 billion pounds of HDPE, 850 million pounds of PVC, 5.1 billion pounds of low density PE, 1.9 billion pounds of polypropylene and 399 million pounds of polystyrene.
Except for PET and HDPE, the vast majority of the resin used went into nonbottle packaging, which can be hard for recyclers to handle.
``When people tell me there [aren't] markets, they are wrong,'' said Ron Perkins, APC director of resource management issue analysis. ``The problem is that we as a society or an industry have not cost-effectively figured out how to collect it.''
The plastics industry also is attacked frequently for not recycling enough film and bags, but Perkins said supply problems exist there also.
Plastic lumber maker Trex Co. in Winchester, Va., is having problems finding supply, and paper and wood firm Boise Cascade Corp. of Boise, Idaho, is evaluating whether it economically can collect the 10 million pounds of film a month it needs in the Pacific Northwest to recycle into a wood-polymer composite siding, Perkins said.
An APC analysis of California recycling figures suggests that communities that tell people to recycle all plastic bottles — rather than just PET and HDPE — get an average of 40 percent more plastic per person. While some less-valuable plastics are collected, proponents argue that the approach also boosts recycling of PET and HDPE.
Three preliminary tests in Maryland's Montgomery County found that switching to all bottles cut the amount of contaminants in half, to 6 percent, but the pounds collected per household did not increase, Perkins said. APC is paying for advertisements for the Montgomery County program, Perkins said.
A large buyer of PET bottles, Image Industries Inc. in Summerville, Ga., has been able to find the raw material supply it needs, although supplies have gotten tighter in the past six months, company officials said.
``Demand continues to outstrip supply in the PET market,'' said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C. ``The focus on the PET industry needs to be on collection.''