Plastics recycling is emerging again as an important political issue, especially in California. That makes the news that the U.S. plastics recycling rate dropped again in 1999 a little disturbing, if not altogether surprising.
The overall bottle recycling rate dropped to 22.1 percent. Industry´s 9-year-old goal to recycle 25 percent of plastic bottles and containers is all but forgotten. Today a more pressing target might be to keep the rate from dropping below 20 percent.
Plastic continues to be victimized by its own success. The booming economy and new applications mean more plastic bottles are being manufactured. Existing recycling programs can´t keep up with the volume.
That´s not to say recyclers are running at capacity — far from it. They could handle a lot more material — 1.55 billion more pounds, according to the recyclers that responded to our May ranking. Uncontaminated sources of PET and high density polyethylene are especially prized.
No, the main problem is on the collection end. Bottle-deposit programs are very effective, and remain our preferred solution. But single-serve, juice, water and sports-drink bottles are exempt in some states, which hurts the recycling rate. Curbside collection, the most popular alternative to deposits, is not growing fast enough to help.
If a big part of the beer market starts to convert from aluminum and glass to plastic, the recycling problem is going to get a lot worse.
Many municipalities and recyclers are worried already. (Brewers and bottle makers have been working to ease those concerns by making beer bottles more recyclable and promising to use recycled PET in new designs).
If the recycling rate doesn´t begin to reverse its persistent slide, don´t expect a backlash from consumers. They like the convenience and appearance of plastic bottles.
What´s more worrisome is the potential for a new round of so-called rates-and-dates legislation: state, local or even federal laws that would mandate recycling rate goals.