In the past 10 years, plastics recycling has shifted from being the hot topic in all facets of the industry to cooling on the back burner.
A decade ago, consumers — from grade-school children to senior citizens — protested products, such as McDonald's clamshells, that they perceived to be unrecyclable. The Environmental Protection Agency suggested a national recycling goal of 25 percent. Legislation mandating recycled content was being considered across the country.
But industry reacted quickly, successfully stalling many states' legislation.
Companies, even virgin resin producers like Union Carbide Corp., Phillips Petroleum Co. and Quantum Chemical Corp., entered the recycling market at breakneck speeds. Processors invested in new technologies to incorporate recycled content into their products.
The recycling rate for plastic bottles and rigid containers — the percentage of plastic recycled vs. the amount of prime resin produced — reached a pinnacle in 1995 at 22.2 percent. Since then, recycled plastic has lost footing to virgin resin production.
Today, expectations seem to be lower than 10 years ago. But despite some critics who claim recycling is on its last legs, J. Winston Porter says recycling is a very successful enterprise in the United States.
In fact, Porter, a former EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, says it's time to declare a recycling victory.
``There was concern in the late '80s about a landfill crisis. People raced to embrace recycling because they thought we were running out of landfill space.''
The Mobro 4000, a barge loaded with trash from Long Island, N.Y., that went on a two-month, 6,000-mile trek searching for a receptive landfill, became the flashpoint.
``The garbage barge of 1987 was a visual event that got the nation excited in general,'' said Porter, president of the Waste Policy Center in Sterling, Va.
While the landfill hubbub abated when people realized there really was no crisis, recycling had gained a foothold in the U.S. culture. The EPA already had put together an agenda for action, a sort of manifesto on what the country should be doing about solid waste. On a local level, communities were encouraged to implement the best mix of the following: reducing trash, recycling trash, landfilling or running waste-to-energy incinerators.
``People are driven,'' Porter added. ``They like to recycle.''
Porter always felt that EPA's 25 percent recycling goal, set in 1988, was attainable. ``A number of states doubled that number, thinking that if 25 percent was good, 50 percent would be even better,'' he said. ``I said at the time that's too high.''
In fact, those states or cities that chose to legislate higher recycling rates have fallen short.
Porter said any material must meet at least one of several criteria to be recycled economically. First, it must have some value. Second, it must be dangerous. Third, it must be plentiful and easy to collect. Many plastics don't meet any of those criteria.
As a result, the industry has become focused on recycling the most easily recognizable and abundant types of plastic, HDPE and PET bottles. Milk jugs and soda bottles still support the lion's share of plastics recycling.
``I think it's good we've recycled as much as we have,'' Porter said. ``I think reality has set in. A 25 percent goal is about right. We reached that [for all municipal waste] in about six to seven years and now the country is leveling out at 27 percent.''
Jon Huntsman Sr., chairman and chief executive officer of Huntsman Corp., agreed that consumers may have carried plastics recycling as far as they are willing to go.
``People don't sift through their garbage to separate it,'' Huntsman said.``The transportation and collection of separated products to recycling centers is so costly that the consumer has to pay double and triple for the end product.''