March 28, 1991, probably stands as the high-water mark of plastics and its role in national politics.
The industry announced to a crowd of national media that 25 percent of all bottles and rigid containers would be recycled by 1995, up from 7 percent at the time.
The declaration won global headlines, because plastic was widely considered an environmental bad guy — a key culprit in the nation's landfill crunch. Legislatures across the country were demanding action.
That 25 percent goal stands as a high-water mark for other reasons, too.
Depending on how you view plastics, it marks either an ambitious goal that jump-started widespread recycling or a cynical attempt by industry to get the world off its back with a goal that would be abandoned when the pressure died.
Progress has been made, but the goal has never been met.
Rigid bottle and container recycling hit 22.2 percent in 1995 but fell back to 20.2 percent in 1997, which is the last year figures are available.
For industry officials who set the goal, it was needed simply to get plastics a seat at the table. The public did not want to listen to messages about other benefits of plastics, like source reduction, they said.
``If we didn't have a goal, I'm not sure we would have been in a position to participate in the debate,'' said Donald Shea, who was president of the organization that set the goal, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. CSWS was funded mainly by virgin resin producers.
``The plastics industry was in a very vitriolic debate,'' said Shea, who now is president of the Washington-based Rubber Manufacturers Association. ``It had very few if any bona fides with the public and decision makers.''
Even so, setting the goal was still a point of debate within the industry. Some argued for around 10 percent, feeling it would be more sustainable. Others favored a goal that was a bigger challenge, and some said public pressure pushed industry to shoot it higher.
``Twenty-five was felt to be the lowest rate that would be acceptable to the general public and the environmental community,'' said Keith Atkins, former business director of solid waste management issues for Danbury, Conn.-based Union Carbide Corp.
``It was already a goal that had been set by the [Environmental Protection Agency]. ... To come out with 15 percent or 20 percent, people would have said, `Come on.'''
Other, lower-profile goals that CSWS set back in 1991 have been met. Seventy-five percent of the population has access to recycling and 19,000 communities participate in curbside recycling, exceeding the goals of providing half the population with access and 4,000 communities with curbside.
But why hasn't the main goal of 25 percent recycling been met?
Economics is the one answer shared, at least in part, by environmentalists, recyclers and the industry.
Virgin plastic is relatively cheap to produce and ship, advantages that become detriments for recycling because often it costs too much to collect and clean post-consumer plastic, said Irwin Levowitz, polyethylene vice president with Exxon Chemical Americas in Houston and a former official with the Washington-based American Plastics Council.
Aluminum, by comparison, is much more expensive to make because bauxite must be pounded with electricity. That cost, in turn, makes it more valuable to recycle, said Atkins.
In 1991 the industry also did not anticipate the ``tremendous growth'' of the use of virgin plastic for ketchup bottles or other containers, Atkins said.
``Overall, I think the progress has been outstanding, but there's still this difficult issue of having it make financial sense,'' said Frank Aronhalt, director of environmental affairs at DuPont from 1988-93. Aronhalt was involved heavily with CSWS.
And the recycling industry must always compete against the cost of virgin resin, which can follow dramatic cycles.
``At the bottom of the cycle, virgin resin is selling at very cheap prices — that makes it hard for the recyclers,'' said Ron Yocum, president of Washington-based APC, which evolved from CSWS.
The rapid expansion of PET production in the past three years has led to oversupply that will continue to make recycling a struggle, said Steve Babinchak, president of St. Jude Polymer Corp. in Frackville, Pa.
But apart from economics, others say the virgin resin industry lost interest in recycling.
``I think they were serious about getting out of trouble,'' said Marty Forman, whose Milwaukee firm, Poly-Anna Plastics Products Inc., recycled plastic and made it into bins. Forman was a former board member of the National Recycling Coalition and an original member of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
``About the time they got comfortable as the APC, they realized they didn't have to recycle plastics as much as counter a negative image of plastics,'' he said. ``The people who set those goals were the least desirous of seeing those goals met of anybody.''
Levowitz, however, said that he ``never once heard'' talk among resin companies at APC about whether recycling hurts virgin resin sales.
Forman agreed that ``crappy economics'' is one of the chief obstacles plastics recycling has. But he said another obstacle is the plastics industry's own objection to minimum-content laws or other government efforts to boost recycling.
The nation has made a lot of progress on recycling, said J. Winston Porter, an EPA assistant administrator from 1985-89.
Porter, who authored the EPA's 1988 goal of recycling 25 percent of all municipal waste by 1992, said that it took until 1995 to reach that goal.
``Garbage is not an exact science,'' he said. ``It would have been a little better if they met it ... [but] the fact that they have come fairly close to it is pretty good news.''