The American Plastics Council thinks it has a solution to the slipping U.S. plastics recycling rate. The plan, to encourage communities with curbside programs to collect all plastic bottles, is worth a try.
But we´ve got two caveats.
* First, APC members should be prepared to help recycle those bottles that are collected but that most recyclers currently don´t want.
* Second, APC should encourage efforts to nurture markets for recycled-content goods.
Applications exist for post-consumer polystyrene, PVC, low density polyethylene, polycarbonate and polypropylene bottles. But recyclers don´t bother with them because the volumes are too low. In fact, those bottles are considered contaminates that reduce the value of bales of PET and high density PE bottles.
Since recyclers won´t pay for those "other" bottles, many municipalities don´t bother collecting them. According to Arlington, Va.-based APC, 60 million U.S. households have curbside programs that collect PET and HDPE only, but only about 7 million have access to all-bottle programs.
But APC´s research shows that encouraging consumers to recycle all bottles boosts PET and HDPE volume without affecting contamination levels. Collecting all bottles takes away some of the confusion that consumers have about what plastics they´re allowed to put in recycling bins. Take away the confusion, and more people recycle more plastics — on average, 5-6 pounds more per year. That makes sense.
Since 95 percent of all plastic bottles are made of PET and HDPE, increasing the total amount of plastic collected naturally benefits recyclers by collecting more of those two most-valued materials. According to APC, if just half of the U.S. communities with curbside collection introduced all-bottle programs, that would generate 150 million pounds of additional recycled plastics per year. That could improve the recycling rate by as much as 10 percent.
The association based that data on demonstration projects it supported in Mesa, Ariz., and Vermont´s Winham County, plus a survey of 11 other community curbside programs.
The problems that plastics recyclers face are complicated, and we´re not proposing that APC — or anyone else — take on responsibility to keep the recycling industry on financial life support. The industry will thrive only if companies treat recycling as a real business.
But the recycling rate is tumbling, most recently from 23.5 percent in 1998 to 22.1 percent in 1999. The plastics industry, and some of its biggest customers, are under pressure to do something to encourage the public to recycle more plastic.
We´ll continue to support a plan that has greater potential than the all-bottle project — a national bottle bill.
Nevertheless, the all-bottle project deserves processors´ support. A good first step would be to use APC´s research to convince local decision makers to try the all-bottle collection program.