We seek to set the record straight on two fronts with regard to Plastics News' June 28, Page 1 story on U.S. plastic recycling rates.
First, plastics recycling continues to grow and is holding its own in comparison to recycling rates of other commodities. Recently, the market for all recyclables has been difficult. In fact, during the past year or two, other materials have experienced negative or flat recycling rates. Data obtained from the Web sites of the other recycling Big Four paint a picture of the recyclables industries that can help to put the plastic recycling figures in perspective.
Glass bottles experienced a decrease of 222,000 tons of cullet purchased. As a result, the recycling rate fell 2.7 percent in 1997. 1998 data is unavailable.
Aluminum cans experienced a decrease of 114 million pounds and a rate that dropped 3.7 percent.
Steel cans experienced a decrease of 4.8 percent in the recycling rate.
Paper showed a slight rate increase of 0.8 percent; however the paper recycling rate is still below that of 1996.
The equivalent facts for plastic bottles are:
Plastic bottles recycled in 1998 increased by 89 million pounds; PET bottles recycled in 1998 increased by 61 million pounds; The recycling rate for high density polyethylene bottles increased from 24.7 percent to 25.2 percent; The total amount of plastic bottles recycled increased 7 percent in 1998; and the overall rate for plastic bottles dropped slightly from 23.7 percent to 23.5 percent.
The growth in the sale of plastic bottles for an increasing variety of products has contributed to the decrease in its recycling rates. The many benefits of plastics are causing manufacturers to replace alternative packaging materials for products like mayonnaise, applesauce, soups and beer.
As a result, the environment will benefit. The current switch from glass to plastic applesauce jars is a good example. The plastic jar, weighing almost 80 percent less than its glass counterpart, contributes to dramatic reductions in material and resource usage, in addition to the fuel savings from shipping less container weight and the reduction in material loss from breakage.
The second point that needs to be emphasized is that supply of baled bottles is a major inhibitor to the growth of the post-consumer plastics recycling industry. When presented with the fact that plastics recycling is supply-limited, Lance King (spokesman for the Grass Roots Recycling Network) commented to Plastics News: ``That is unadulterated horse fertilizer.''
Perhaps we should assume that coming from an environmental organization that promotes everything organic, his comment is the highest of compliments. But supply-limited plastic recycling is indeed an established fact.
Robin Cotchan, executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers said: ``APR has long recognized the supply shortfall and has issued a press release highlighting the need for more supply. APR has held three subsequent regional workshops that have restated supply as a limiting factor for the industry.''
Relative to supply, several facts need to be emphasized:
The plastics recycling industry has the capacity to reclaim 48 percent more recycled plastic bottles than is currently processed;
PET bottle wash capacity exceeds supply by nearly 450 million pounds;
HDPE bottle wash capacity exceeds supply by 650 million pounds; and
Demand for post-consumer recycled plastics continues to increase — for fibers, strapping, bottles, containers of all types — not to mention the mushrooming demand for plastic lumber, plastic railroad ties and marine pilings.
The plastic recycling industry is working to increase the collection of the new 20-ounce PET bottles along with more half-gallon and gallon containers and the entire spectrum of plastic bottles. Trade associations representing the plastics industry have developed resources for communities that can help to increase the amount of plastic captured from consumers for recycling. The resultant increase in sustainable recycling would be of benefit to all.
Burgiel is director of Solid Waste Management Services, North America, for R.W. Beck Inc., which prepares the American Plastics Council's annual recycling-rate study.