Plastics recyclers' opinions are mixed concerning the state of the industry.
Some say business is as good as ever; others look at plunging recycling rates and see a sick industry desperately in need of a shot of encouragement.
``All recyclables are in a slump,'' said Gary Pratt, president of P&R Environmental Industries Inc. in Youngsville, N.C.
``We need to pound the shoe on the podium to get attention. The major issue is how to get recycling out of its funk. And it's all recyclables, not just plastics.
``It takes time to turn the recycling market around,'' he continued. ``This is the worst it's been in years.''
On the other hand, the president of the nation's largest plastics recycler has a more optimistic view.
``Our business is as good as it's been,'' said Arthur Ferguson of KW Plastics, a Troy, Ala.-based high density polyethylene recycler. ``We have even acquired new customers because of other companies going out of business. Pricing is not what we'd like it to be, but we have good sales.''
Coming into 1999, recyclers are concerned about low prices for virgin resins, which tend to keep recycling prices low, and new bottle designs that may play havoc with recycling streams.
Virgin resin production continues at a frenzied pace, making for a sick recycling industry, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va.
``The faster we go the behinder we get,'' she said. ``Look at the rates and what's happened over the past several years.''
In last year's annual bottle and container recycling report by Washington-based American Plastics Council, the rate for all rigid containers fell for the second straight year. PET recovery rates have declined since 1994.
PET's popularity as a packaging resin may be a contributing factor in its recycling decline. Single-serve PET containers have seen considerable growth in the soda and water markets. The bottles are frequently consumed away from home and do not make it back into curbside bins except in deposit states.
Still, recycled PET is a commodity, and therefore is subject to market fluctuations, said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources.
Charlotte, N.C.-based NAPCOR is supporting efforts to recycle harder-to-collect bottles.
``I'm an optimist,'' he stated. ``We won't see the peaks and valleys we have seen.'' NAPCOR represents the PET industry, including resin suppliers, bottle makers and machinery companies.
``My idea is for states to place a recycle bin with the garbage at rest stops,'' Ferguson said. ``I believe most people know what can be recycled but just don't want to go through the sorting process.''
In addition to single-serve PET, recyclers now are finding single-serve HDPE milk bottles in their bales.
Adding to the concern is the advent of beer in plastic bottles.
``More PET is coming on the market with beer moving to PET,'' Franklin added. ``There will be more PET to deal with and possibly in amber bottles. I can't conclusively say this won't cause problems. It's another stream to be separated which leads to increasing processing costs, increasing collection costs and separating aluminum caps.''
Amber PET is Pratt's biggest concern. One PET recycler went so far as to say that if the beer bottles are brown, they may have to be landfilled.
Besides color, plastic beer bottles offer an additional challenge — multilayers. Recyclers fear the technical challenges of filling plastic bottles with beer will outweigh any design consideration to make the bottles easy to recycle.
Outside these new applications and subsequent challenges, recyclers say steps can be taken now to boost recycling's profile. These include consumer education, encouraging government and companies to buy recycled products, establishing producer responsibility or enacting bottle bills.
Consumer education would help people understand that plastic is as recyclable as an aluminum can, Schmidt said. Anyone in the chain, from resin producer to processor, could share the responsibility. In addition, this would help identify custom bottles, which are not always recaptured from households.
``Recycling has strong public support,'' Edgar Miller, director of policy and programs for the National Recycling Coalition, said. ``Recyclers need to work to maintain that.''
The most controversial solution is to expand state-mandated bottle bills.
``I think if the plastics industry isn't willing to step in and come up with a solution to reverse what's been happening and assist in turning it around to make it healthy, the state governments have to intercede,'' Franklin stated.
This could take the form of producer responsibility in package design and taking back products.
``Bureaucrats are against mandates,'' she added. ``But I think you have to deal with it at state level with either take-back requirements or a system of deposits.''
``Curbside recycling is not the solution,'' she continued. ``It's grown and PET recycling has dropped. I don't look for things to improve next year.''
While there has been supply-side legislation, the industry needs demand-side legislation, Pratt argued.
``I think plastics recycling needs a Saddam Hussein,'' Pratt said. ``Nobody is going to bat in the industry. We need someone to stand up against giants in the industry.''
``The industry needs to say `Look, we've got to start using it again,''' he added.
``We wouldn't be an industry without bottle bills,'' another recycler added. ``This industry is full of huge swings, it's the most volatile segment of whole business. Mandatory recycling would take some volatility out of it.''
Ferguson said the recycling industry has flourished with mandates, especially in California and Florida. However, his firm's stance has been to support mandates when they make economic sense.