Waste Management Inc. is investing heavily in an all-bottle plastics recycling center, a potentially significant move by the nation's largest waste hauler to help the plastics industry boost sagging recycling rates.
Houston-based Waste Management bought plastics recycler P&R Environmental Industries Inc. in late 2000, and plans to use it as the base of a North Carolina facility that will allow WMI to collect and sort plastic bottles from all resin types. Traditionally, the hauler has focused only on PET and high density polyethylene.
While that may not sound earth-shattering, it could have big implications for curbside recycling programs and for attempts to increase falling recycling rates.
But WMI stopped short of a full endorsement of the plastics industry's all-bottle strategy.
Steve Ragiel, vice president of recycling at WMI, said the company needs to see if markets can develop for rarely recycled bottle types before the firm is ready to sign on to the program. He said WMI probably will need six months to figure out whether the volumes of other resin types will allow the system to make economic sense.
If they find it is not economical, Ragiel said the big question becomes: "How quickly can we grow that demand" for other post-consumer plastics, including PVC, low density PE, polystyrene and polypropylene?
The American Plastics Council, in Arlington, Va., contends that switching to an all-bottle approach can boost the amount of bottles collected by an average of 12 percent because the message is simpler for consumers. All-bottle programs capture more containers not usually recycled, like shampoo bottles and peanut butter jars, APC said.
Only about 10 percent of U.S. communities do all-bottle collection, so a move by Waste Management to upgrade its equipment could open the way for more communities to switch, according to Barb Halpin, associate director of APC's Technical Assistance Program.
"The significance of Waste Management is they control so many of the communities," she said. "By and large we haven't seen that level of commitment to `all-bottles' [programs]."
Ragiel said WMI will move P&R's equipment from its two factories in Youngsville, N.C., to the Raleigh area, where it has a large glass-recycling processing plant.
Luke Schmidt, president of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., said he is not aware of other waste haulers that have facilities designed for all-bottle collection. He termed all-bottle programs the "way of the future."
Both Schmidt and Robin Cotchan, director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Arlington, said they expect WMI to build more of the all-bottle sortation facilities, though neither has spoken specifically about that with the firm.