WASHINGTON — The plastic bottle and container recycling rate fell for the second straight year, prompting some observers to herald it as confirmation that plastics recycling has plateaued or headed backward.
The rate for all rigid containers fell from 21.2 percent in 1996 to 20.2 percent in 1997, even as the pounds of plastic collected for recycling actually increased, according to figures released Aug. 18 by the American Plastics Council, based in Washington.
The reasons: Plastics recycling has not kept pace with much larger increases in virgin resin production, and recycling is being hurt by the ever-more popular single-serve bottles that are bought at places like convenience stores and consumed on-the-run, away from traditional recycling locations.
``The reason why it's plateaued — you've just got virgin, virgin, virgin,'' said Gary Pratt, president of recycler P&R Environmental Industries Inc. in Youngsville, N.C., and a spokesman for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. Why would anyone want to use recycled when virgin resin is cheap, he said.
Consider these figures from APC's report:
The rate for all plastic bottles dropped from 24.5 percent to 23.7 percent.
Recycling bottle wash capacity in the United States in 1997 was down a little bit from 1996 and was still well below its 1995 high. By contrast, there were steady increases in capacity between 1991 and 1995.
The PET bottle recycling rate dropped from 27.8 percent to 25.4 percent. The PET soda bottle rate dropped from 38.6 percent to 35.8 percent, and overall pounds of PET collected showed only a slight increase, from 631.6 million in 1996 to 649 million last year.
High density polyethylene bottles continued to be the one bright spot, with the rate rising 0.3 percentage points to 24.7 percent. Just more than 704 million pounds were collected, up from 655.5 million pounds in 1996.
According to Arthur Ferguson, general manager of the largest HDPE recycler in the country, KW Plastics in Troy, Ala., HDPE is growing because it can be recycled into many more uses than PET. But the HDPE market is depressed, probably because of overcapacity in virgin resin production, Ferguson said.
Industry officials disagreed with the idea that falling rates indicate that plastics recycling has reached its zenith.
``We think there are opportunities for growth, both in the collection for recycling and in markets,'' said APC spokesman Jack LaCovey. The group ``has an interest in seeing if there is something that APC can do to boost plastics recycling that maybe we are not doing.''
``We don't know what that is but clearly it is something we are looking at,'' LaCovey said. He declined to provide more specifics.
Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., said the industry saw large recycling increases in the early part of the decade when curbside programs were growing. Only 52 communities added plastic to curbside programs in 1997, APC said.
The PET industry must now collect more custom PET containers and at least double the 3,500 bottle-shaped recycling bins NAPCOR is placing at spots where single-serve bottles are sold, he said. Schmidt said he did not know how many such containers would be needed to make a significant dent in the single-serve problem.
But figures from the Container Recycling Institute suggest that even as the PET recycling rate went down from a 1994 high, the percentage of the U.S. population served by curbside recycling has increased from 42 percent in 1994 to 51 percent in 1997.
Expanding bottle bills — something that the plastics industry has traditionally opposed as too costly — would boost recycling, said Pat Franklin, executive director of Arlington, Va.-based CRI.
About 54 percent of the nation's PET soda bottles recycled are collected through bottle-bill states, yet those states account for only 29 percent of the population, she said. Bottle-bill states have a PET recycling rate of between 76 and 90 percent, Franklin said.
J. Winston Porter, assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 1985-89 and the developer of the government's 25 percent recycling goal, said recycling overall is plateauing.
``You don't have the environmental and economic incentives, and the cost per pound [of recycling] goes up even more as you get the rate higher,'' he said.
Recycling rates for steel and aluminum rose slightly between 1996 and 1997, with steel rising from 58.2 percent to 60.7 percent, and aluminum going from 63.5 percent to 66.5 percent. The aluminum industry has publicly committed to a 75 percent recycling rate at some unspecified date, according to a spokeswoman with the Aluminum Association in Washington.
The glass packaging recycling rate fell from 37.9 percent to 35.2 percent in 1997.