WASHINGTON — Call it recycling's dirty little secret.
Between 5 and 15 percent of what is counted as recycled plastic by the American Plastics Council is not. It can be paper fiber or soda syrup or some other waste that gets sent to garbage dumps.
The trade associations that calculate recycling rates base their statistics on the weight of materials before they are processed for recycling, not after they've been cleaned and contaminants have been removed.
The situation is not unique to plastics; data for other materials include waste that is not recycled. That fact has prompted critics to call recycling rates inflated.
``What you realize is, they are beating their brains out to get the numbers up,'' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va. ``I guess the only way they can get the numbers up is by inflating them.''
But other recycling industry officials dispute that data is inflated. They say the pre-waste numbers are the only data they can get from industries to estimate recycling.
Plus, for materials such as aluminum and paper, recycled product is mixed immediately with virgin, making it tough to calculate how much material is actually recycled, officials with those industries say.
Washington-based APC used to count recycling only by measuring the amount of plastic cleaned and ready to be re-used. But APC switched in 1997 because it saw how other industries were calculating their numbers in reports to the Environmental Protection Agency.
``We found we were penalizing ourselves,'' said Pete Dinger, APC director of technology. ``We found that other industries were being a lot more liberal with their numbers.''
``When we started this out, being the new kids on the block ... we wanted to be totally above reproach,'' he said. ``We went with the most accurate data — the pounds recycled.''
The change also came at the same time that the overall plastics recycling rate showed its first drop since measuring began in the late 1980s.
APC officials said they take pains to produce an accurate recycling report, gathering information from almost 300 plastics recyclers and calling companies that do not respond to its survey.
A look at recycling statistics provided by the main PET recycling group illustrates how much of a rate jump you get when you change how you measure.
The National Association for PET Container Resources reported a 1997 recycling rate of 27.1 percent — including waste material. But measuring only material that is cleaned and made ready to be re-used, the rate dropped to 22.7 percent.
NAPCOR calls the rate before cleaning its recycling rate, and after cleaning, its utilization rate.
Most of the material removed during processing has to be thrown out, said Luke Schmidt, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based NAPCOR.
``If you are looking for the clearest picture of what is recovered and reclaimed, utilization will give you that number,'' Schmidt said. ``If you are looking at what is initially diverted from landfills, it's the recycling rate.''
Providing both numbers is good, but groups need to be clear that some recycling figures includes residue that cannot be recycled, said Edgar Miller, policy director of the National Recycling Coalition in Alexandria, Va.
``It's important that we give the public an accurate sense of what is going on,'' he said. ``I think that means we should look at recycling as the amount of material used in manufacturing.''
Plastics recyclers said they generally agreed with APC's estimate that 5-15 percent of the weight of a bale of plastic collected from recycling programs is lost in processing. But they said not all of that always winds up in landfills.
Steve Babinchak, president of PET and high density polyethylene recycler St. Jude Polymer Corp. in Frackville, Pa., said 7-9 percent of the waste includes soda syrup, paper fiber and things sent to landfills. Other waste includes less-common plastics that may not have a market but could be used in applications such as plastic lumber, he said.
Generally, 62-68 percent of an average PET bale from a curbside program can be made into usable flake, Babinchak said.
A bale of HDPE that has been cleaned generally yields 80-90 percent of its weight in recycled resin, said Richard Rapson, sales and inventory manager at HDPE and polypropylene recycler Polymer Resource Group in Baltimore.
The paper industry also includes waste in its recycling rate, with losses of 5-20 percent, said Pat Layton, senior director of fiber recovery and utilization at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington.
Some of the sludge from cleaning paper is used in things like kitty litter, but some also is thrown out, she said.
That waste can include plastic, metal, glass, materials that cannot be recycled and types of paper that may not be recyclable in some applications, AFPA said.
Aluminum burns off paints and liners, and loses some recycled aluminum in remelting, said Nick Adams, director of statistics and economics for the Aluminum Association in Washington. He estimated total losses at up to 15 percent.
Adams said hardly any contaminants are counted in the recycling rate and that remelting losses have nothing to do with the recycling rate. The industry does not have reliable numbers on losses because aluminum makers do not want to share the data with competitors, he said.
The Washington-based Glass Packaging Institute said it measures only the glass that can be used in recycling, while the Steel Recycling Institute in Pittsburgh said it weighs steel before reprocessing but takes off 2.5 percent for contamination and other loss.
The consultant who prepares EPA recycling numbers, Marge Franklin, said her EPA figures ``mostly'' come from industry trade groups. Franklin, a principal in Franklin Associates Ltd. in Prairie Village, Kan., said the EPA wants to use data it can get consistently from year to year.
``You have to work with the data you can get,'' she said.
The EPA labels its figures as recovery rates, not recycling rates, she said. Franklin Associates has been preparing EPA's annual recycling figures for more than 20 years.