Declining recycling rates call for stronger action from the plastics industry, and a lot more candor in its statistics.
There's not a lot to be happy about in the latest plastics recycling numbers. For starters, the overall rate went down for the second straight year, led by another decline in PET. Sure, the raw volume of plastics collected went up, but it did not keep pace with a much more rapid increase in the amount of virgin resin sold. So most of the rates dropped.
Some of recycling's problems are beyond the industry's control — like the rising popularity of single-serve soda in 20-ounce bottles. They are wreaking havoc with PET recycling because they are bought at places like gas stations and consumed away from home.
But there's also some basic dishonesty in how the industry presents its recycling figures. The Aug. 18 report from the American Plastics Council did not include detailed information on recycling of nonbottle packaging, as it has in past years. Previously, the report detailed the recycling rates for such nonbottle packaging and provided supporting information on volume of plastic sold and collected for recycling for those uses.
Those figures formed the basis of some critical analysis of plastic recycling done by the Environmental Defense Fund. Last year, APC declined to provide a copy of its report to EDF, so Plastics News did. Now, APC has stopped putting those figures in its report.
And APC, for the second year, inflates what actually is recycled by counting material that ultimately is thrown out.
In 1996, APC started counting as recycled all material delivered to processing facilities—what's known as a recovery rate. By APC's own estimate, 5-15 percent of that does not become post-consumer resin. Most of that is contaminated and is thrown out, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources.
It's true that other materials also count recycling that way, and plastics would not want to suffer from unfair comparisons with inflated aluminum, steel and glass rates. It's also true that the Environmental Protection Agency counts materials recovered to be recycled in its reports. But it's still deceptive to boost recycling rates with statistical sleight of hand. NAPCOR, for its part, still presents both recovery and true recycling figures.
Don't misunderstand. APC and NAPCOR do valuable work in recycling, promoting more-efficient collection methods and helping communities conduct successful public education campaigns. But trade groups and the EPA need to present figures for what is truly recycled, and not offer up inflated numbers that bolster industry image. APC, at a minimum, should return to its old method of presenting recycling numbers that tell us what truly is recycled.