The PET and soft drink industries have launched an ambitious trial in Columbia, S.C., to boost recycling of the container that gets much of the blame for falling plastic recycling rates — the single-serve PET bottle. Two industry groups have put 200 green bins at convenience stores around the city and launched a radio and billboard ad campaign aimed at getting consumers not to put the bottles, including popular 20-ounce soft drink containers, in the trash.
The trial is the first time the industry has targeted a widespread effort at single-serve bottles, which typically are not recycled as much because they are bought and disposed of away from home, said Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C.
Along with NAPCOR, the National Soft Drink Association also is funding the trial.
While the effort is praised by city officials, one environmental group is asking whether the effort can be sustained in other cities, on a broad enough scale to reverse falling PET recycling rates.
"I'll eat everything on my desk if they say, `We plan to go forward across the country and foot the bill in every single community across the country,"|' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va.
Industry officials say the Columbia effort is just a trial. Decisions will be made after the 13-week project is done, Schmidt said.
"This is really just another step in this whole long process of developing PET recycling," Schmidt said. "We see this as a very positive effort. We want to see what we can learn."
NAPCOR ran a much smaller trial to boost single-serve recycling in Louisville, Ky., but did not get participation from enough retail stores, Schmidt said.
E. Gifford Stack, vice president of environmental affairs with the National Soft Drink Association in Washington, said questions about whether the program can be expanded are premature.
"This is not to determine whether it can be reproduced in other cities," he said. "We want to see how the consumer reacts to radio, billboards, media outlets and a Web site."
Schmidt, in a statement last fall, labeled the growth of single-serve PET containers as the primary reason that the PET recycling rate fell from 27.1 percent in 1997 to 24.8 percent in 1998. Figures from Beverage World magazine say 20-ounce PET soft drink bottles grew from 130 million units sold in 1990 to 12.3 billion in 1998.
Stack said there is no hard data on how many 20-ounce containers are recycled. He said the growth of custom PET bottles also could contribute to falling recycling rates.
South Carolina recycles only about 12 percent of its PET bottles, according to a 1998 state government study. The state is concerned about single-serve bottles and is talking about how it can support the project after the trial ends, said Richard Chesley, a manager in the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control.
NAPCOR and NSDA plan a second campaign in Albuquerque starting May 8, but details have yet to be worked out, Stack said.
In Columbia, the advertising campaign kicked off Feb. 29 with a sports-related theme designed to appeal to men from 18-40 — considered the group that throws out the most bottles, said Jay Hicks, executive vice president of the South Carolina Soft Drink Association in Columbia.
The campaign, which encourages residents to "Slam Dunk" bottles into the recycling containers, also is giving away $100 weekly to people who recycle soft drink bottles.
Both NAPCOR and NSDA declined to say how much the effort cost. Industry groups are paying for the ads and the bins at convenience stores, and the city of Columbia is paying to collect the material.
"We'll have to wait until after the trial period to see what kind of generation rates we are getting" before deciding if it will be continued, said Robert Anderson, solid waste superintendent for Columbia. He said the cost of collection is not significant for the city.