The PET container recycling rate fell to 23.7 percent in 1999, the fifth straight year of decline, according to figures from the National Association for PET Container Resources. Industry officials said they face continuing challenges recycling single-serve containers, while the recycling industry remains well under capacity and could use much more material.
"Publicly initiated programs such as curbside and drop-off need to be reinvigorated for increased consumer education and recycling promotions to work effectively toward collecting more bottles," according to NAPCOR's recycling report.
While the rate went down, from 24.8 percent in 1998, it was a much slower drop compared with the mid-1990s, when the rate fell between four and eight percentage points a year.
NAPCOR's report paints a picture of a somewhat-paradoxical market, where rates fall and collection fails to keep pace with booming PET expansion into new products, but where Chinese companies scramble for U.S. PET and the domestic recycling industry cannot find enough material.
The fiber industry, which used well over half the recycled PET in the United States, could consume twice what it did in 1999 if supply were available, NAPCOR said.
"Increasing the collection of PET bottles remains the primary concern of all in the industry," it said.
At least three expansions of PET reclamation capacity planned in 1999 were postponed because of uncertainty about supply, NAPCOR said. The trade group is based in Charlotte, N.C.
Steve Babinchak, president of PET recycler St. Jude Polymer Corp. in Frackville, Pa., said some new initiatives are needed to boost collection. That could include public education, which the bottle makers and consumer product companies favor, or bottle deposits, which environmentalists prefer, he said.
"I think every recycler would love deposits but it is not a practicality," Babinchak said. "As long as you are fighting Coke and Pepsi, how are you going to win?"
NAPCOR said it has two pilot projects to boost single-serve bottle collection, and it said 14,000 of its PETE's Big Bin recycling containers have been placed across the United States.
Recycled PET exported jumped to 183 million pounds in 1999, more than double 1998's 89 million pounds. The vast majority of that went to China, NAPCOR said. Chinese companies are looking for recycled PET because Beijing enacted import quotas on virgin PET in 1999, said Patricia Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif.
NAPCOR also noted that the amount of PET collected for recycling grew to 771 million pounds in 1999, from 745 million pounds in 1998.
NAPCOR's report also said 1999 marked a significant change in the PET bottle market — for the first time, soft drink bottles were a smaller portion of the market than other PET bottles.
Overall, growth in the PET market slowed in 1999, mainly from a mature soft drink market, but PET is expected to pick up again with beer and other products moving more into plastic packaging, NAPCOR said.
Still, that flattening of soft drink sales meant good things for recycling in California. Recycling of PET containers covered in the state's bottle bill rose dramatically in 1999, the first year since 1994 when it hasn't dropped, said William Armstrong, branch manager of market research and rate determination for the California Department of Conservation's Recycling Division.
California recycled 65 percent of those PET bottles in 1999, up from 57 percent in 1998, he said. That's because recycling growth tends to lag behind product growth, he said.
Preliminary figures from California also indicate that the state's expanded bottle bill is dramatically increasing the amount of PET collected, although some California recyclers bemoan the legislation because it upset the industry's collection program.
Collection of PET containers rose 10 percent in January and 49 percent in February, compared with the same period a year earlier, Armstrong said. The state's bottle bill added juice drinks and other noncarbonated beverages Jan. 1.
NAPCOR's report also continued to draw a distinction between a gross recycling rate, which calculates recycling based on bottles collected, and a clean-flake rate, which is lower because it does not include contamination that the gross rate measures. The clean-flake rate measures what is able to be reused in other products, after the recycling process.
That clean rate in 1999 was 18.8 percent, compared with 23.7 percent for the gross figure.