National Polystyrene Recycling Co. finally is being weaned from its corporate guardians and getting a real taste of the free-enterprise system.
This marks the end of an ugly chapter in the plastics packaging industry. But we hope it also will be the beginning of a more successful story that will have a solid foundation in economic reality.
Elm Packaging Co., a Memphis, Tenn.-based packaging thermoformer, announced in late June that it bought NPRC for an undisclosed sum. Elm plans to operate NPRC's Corona, Calif., and Chicago plants, and will rename the business Polystyrene Recycling Co. of America.
Back when it was created in 1989, NPRC won plenty of sympathetic headlines across the country. This was the business that, backed with the financial and technological might of eight virgin resin suppliers, was going to prove that food-service PS was recyclable.
Whether they had technological might, at least in recycling, is debatable. But they certainly had money. Board members say they have spent $85 million to subsidize NPRC since the beginning.
Considering how little NPRC actually recycled in the past decade, that figure is so high that it's almost unbelievable. But it helps tell the story.
Faced with a dire problem, resin suppliers threw cash at bricks, mortar and equipment as fast as they could. In no time, they'd created a national recycling infrastructure.
There's no doubt that the problem appeared serious back in 1989. But what no one could have predicted then was that the public support for recycling anything but milk jugs and soda bottles was barely ankle deep.
After popular pressure forced McDonald's to abandon the PS burger clamshell in 1990, the recycle-at-all-costs drumbeat quickly faded.
The plastics industry won some significant legislative battles, killing efforts to ban take-out PS packaging. Public attitudes started to change, largely the result of the American Plastics Council's mega-million dollar advertising campaign.
In some respects, NPRC's effort might be considered a victory for the plastics industry. Except, well ... it doesn't feel like a victory. It feels like an absolute failure.
It's an embarrassing case in which industry treated recycling like a cost of doing business, not a real business. Officials made promises about recycling 25 percent of food-service products, and then quietly broke those promises when they discovered no one was keeping track.
And it was a case in which an ill-informed public, egged on by environmentalists and suppliers of competing materials, insisted that PS was a problem, and that recycling alone was the answer.
We've said this before — given the widespread lack of support for recycling, it's amazing that NPRC's owners stuck with the company for as long as they have. They tried for years to make it profitable and to boost production.
We hope that selling the firm will be the first step toward turning it around, and that having a single, dedicated owner will be more effective than having a committee of owners with the cash, but without the commitment, to make NPRC truly successful.