Recycling rate reports were about as clear as mud last year, for all the different ways to measure the amounts of plastic recycled. Processors neglected to consider how their new products would affect the recycling stream. Many firms with innovative technologies either jettisoned their projects or failed to find ways to implement the systems.
On the other hand, some of the industry's best are in the spotlight here, too. As a result, this year's report card is mixed. Grades are based on whether the parties met their goals, whether their efforts were sustainable and whether their accomplishments were substantive or frivolous.
American Plastics Council: D
APC made a couple of significant missteps. One was using a new way to calculate the recycling rate that produces a more-favorable figure only because it now includes some material that will wind up in the trash heap.
APC also embarked on a puzzling new policy of selectively releasing its recycling statistics, declining to provide data to organi- zations that have been critical of the industry. And while the aluminum industry presses forward with its goal of a 75 percent recycling rate, APC is silent on offering a similar vision for plastics.
The Washington group does valuable work in research and infrastructure, particularly in durables, but playing with statistics reinforces the idea that image is winning out over serious initiatives.
Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers: B
This Washington-based group finally did something to grab the plastics industry's attention this year. Its griping about Pepsi's label for The Grip bottle won national notice. And APR's report calling PVC a contaminant to the post-consumer recycling stream should serve as a wake-up call, too.
Long a bellwether for environmentalism, the state government is beating the drum on plastics recycling. Regulators said plastics did not meet recycling targets and are investigating whether manufacturers are using recycled content and reducing source.
State officials miscalculated their rate—probably undercounting high density polyethylene—but the focus comes after some recent setbacks for recycling in California. This includes the Legislature's gutting of a recycled-content law for plastics packaging in 1996, which earned an F in last year's Plastics News report card.
Coca-Cola Co.: C-
The largest soft drink company in the world began making recycled-content bottles in Sydney, Australia, in January. The Atlanta-based firm has the technology, so why not provide recycled-content plastic bottles in the United States, where consumption is higher and environmental groups have been demanding them?
Introducing pigmented HDPE bottles was a big step backward for one of the few plastics recycling success stories. While camps are divided on the nutritional value retained by pigmented HDPE, recyclers say different colors of milk jugs could affect recycling adversely. In addition, natural-colored containers command a higher price than colored.
Ecoplast Corp.: A
The Los Angeles-based firm received a letter of nonobjection from the Food and Drug Administration to use 100 percent post-consumer HDPE in a monolayer application for food contact. After buying the assets of Union Carbide Corp.'s recycling operations, Ecoplast became the only firm with the coveted letter for HDPE. This competitively priced material should be snapped up.
The U.S. government: C
The nation's largest shopper has added many recycled plastic products to its purchasing lists, but industry reports very little impact. Washington's effort thus far has been a ``paper'' tiger, focusing on paper buying and lacking the resources to push the purchasing bureaucracies on plastics. An upcoming summit on recycling, however, could signal a more vocal role for Washington.
National Polystyrene Recycling Co.: D
Blaming unprofitability and a shrinking demand for recycled PS, the firm shut one of its remaining three plants last year and may close the others if they don't turn around. In Chicago, NPRC began charging 15 cents per pound to recycle food-service PS, and the Corona, Calif., operation stopped paying for food-service materials.
NPRC, formed in 1989, expected to have six large-scale PS recycling centers, recycling 25 percent of PS used in food-service and packaging markets by 1995. One might conclude that, having fallen far short, NPRC, owned by five major virgin PS suppliers, is focused only on the bottom line.
The newly renamed National Association for PET Container Resources undertook some good pilot programs to boost recycling. But distributing 4,000 big green recycling bins to combat PET recycling's biggest problem —the explosion of single-serve containers—won't make much of a dent. More will be needed, such as deposits on those containers.
Owens-Illinois Inc.: Incomplete
The Toledo, Ohio, firm picked up some interesting technology with its acquisition of Continental PET Technologies Inc., the leading supplier of PET containers for hot-fill products. Continental had what some in the industry called the world's finest technical team. We'll be watching to see what O-I does with this technology.
Packaging designers: DThe design-for-recyclability concept tumbled like a house of cards in 1998. Some examples: PVC labels on PET Gatorade bottles, Dean's Milk Chugs and Snapple; and a recycling-unfriendly label on Pepsi's The Grip bottle.
Trex Co. LLC: A
The Winchester, Va.-based firm claims to be the largest U.S. consumer of reclaimed PE film. It places bins in Midwest grocery stores to encourage recycling. It seems no matter where you look, Trex is pitching for more material.
Vinyl Institute: D
PVC takes a lot of cheap shots. But its dismal reputation in post-consumer recycling is deserved. The industry once had a model program to buy PVC bottles from recyclers. All VI needs to do to end the criticism is to find a way to reinstate that program. Is that really too much to ask?