WASHINGTON — The plastic bottle recycling rate dropped slightly in 1998, with an increase in high density polyethylene containers masking a more-pronounced drop in the rate for PET bottles.
Despite the drop, the American Plastics Council put a positive spin on its report, touting the record volume of plastic recycled last year.
But environmentalists complained that the report indicates record amounts of plastic are being sent to garbage dumps.
About 23.5 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in the United States last year, down slightly from 23.7 percent in 1997. That marked the third-straight year the rate has fallen. But declines in 1998 were not as steep as in previous years, leading to a glass-half-full, half-empty debate about what it all means.
Environmentalists and some government officials see the decline as confirmation that plastic recycling markets remain weak and need to be bolstered with bottle bills and mandated-content legislation.
APC, which released the figures June 23, said record amounts of plastic were recycled, and said recycling rates generally kept pace with large increases in virgin plastic made into bottles.
An APC news release did not make any mention of declining rates, but did make repeated references to record volumes of recycling and noted that rates for HDPE rose.
``We choose to see a very positive side to these figures,'' said APC spokesman Tyrone Wilson. ``If you look at last year, that represents a record number of pounds — 1.45 billion. That certainly is a positive we want to stress with policy makers.''
The plastics industry finds itself a target in California, where strict mandated-content legislation passed the Senate this month. Influential Wisconsin lawmakers have introduced similar legislation, arguing that the industry has not lived up to commitments to develop markets for recycled plastics.
A California recycling official said plastics recycling continues to suffer because of the popularity of single-serve, 20-ounce bottles and because virgin resin remains cheap.
``The economics of recycling this stuff isn't getting any better,'' said John Nuffer, manager of the rigid plastic container recycling program at the California Integrated Waste Managment Board. ``There is more and more virgin resin being produced, and that resin is so cheap, it forces the recycled plastic out of contention.''
Communities throughout California cannot find buyers for recycled resin that is collected, and some is being stockpiled or sent to landfills, he said.
APC said the problem is that communities need to collect more plastic. Recycling growth will be driven by getting people in existing programs to put more plastic in recycling bins and expanding collection programs to locations like apartment buildings, offices and rural areas.
The report said the installed capacity to recycle plastic greatly exceeds the amount processed, as it historically has, with the industry using only 52 percent of the capacity.
``Since market demand is also strong, obtaining adequate supply of materials to feed the plastics recycling industry has been and continues to be the limiting factor,'' APC said.
Lance King, a spokesman for the GrassRoots Recycling Network, called that statement ``unadulterated horse fertilizer.''
``If there is no market for it, what happens is you throw it in the recycling bin, a local government gets stuck with it, and offers it at a loss or dumps it.''
There have been modest increases in recycling of some plastics, but record amounts of plastic also are being thrown away because recycling rates generally are not getting better, he said. A disproportionate amount of plastic that is recycled comes from the 10 states with bottle bills, King said.
Among the report's findings:
The HDPE bottle recycling rate increased to 25.2 percent, from 24.7 percent in 1997. A greater percentage of HDPE bottles were recycled than PET bottles.
The PET soft drink bottle rate dropped to 35.6 percent, from 35.8 percent in 1997. That rate stood at 38.6 percent in 1996.
The overall PET bottle recycling rate, including custom bottles, fell to 24.4 percent, a full percentage point below 1997.
The recycling rate for all bottles and rigid containers held steady at 20.2 percent in 1998.
Rates for PVC, low density PE and polystyrene bottles were less than 0.2 percent, while about 3.7 percent of polypropylene bottles were recycled. PP, PVC, LDPE and PS bottles make up only 6 percent of the total bottles manufactured.