The PET container recycling rate continued to drop last year, falling to 22.3 percent and pulling down the overall recycling rate for plastic bottles.
The PET rate fell from 23.7 percent in 1999 and, according to the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., hit an 11-year low. Overall, the plastic bottle rate fell from 22.1 percent in 1999 to 21.8 percent in 2000.
``We are talking about backsliding,'' said Pat Franklin, executive director of CRI.
Plastics industry officials chose to accentuate the positive: Plastic collected for recycling has more than tripled since 1990. The amount of plastic collected hit a record 1.511 billion pounds last year, up slightly from 1.509 billion pounds in 1999.
But collection didn't keep pace with even larger increases in plastic used in containers. Environmentalists say that means ever-larger amounts of plastic are sent to landfills.
Two reports released Aug. 8 by the American Plastics Council in Arlington and the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., paint a picture similar to recent years, when rates fell and collection volumes rose.
The reports point to a number of factors for falling recycling rates, including increased popularity of single-serve containers consumed away from home, maturing infrastructure, the growth of less-recycled containers not used for soft drinks, cuts in government funding for recycling and lack of consumer education.
NAPCOR's report noted that the PET bottle market saw its second consecutive year of slowing growth in 2000. The market grew 6 percent, compared with 9 percent in 1999 and double-digit growth in much of the 1990s.
Mainly that is due to flat sales in most soft drink containers. The market for single-serve and custom bottles continues to expand, but those containers are recycled less frequently.
The switch to plastic custom bottles, which generally refers to containers other than soft drink containers, is good for the environment because plastic containers take less energy to make and save money on transportation, said APC spokesman Rob Krebs. Environmental issues require looking at more than just recycling, he said.
``We don't perceive this as problematic,'' he said. ``The problem, if there is one, is educating consumers.''
But others disagree. CRI's Lance King said the APC report ducks the issue of the industry's responsibility.
``One of the clear elements missing from this report is the sense of producer responsibility for the package waste,'' King said. ``They make it sound like somehow it is the consumer's fault that things haven't improved.''
Recycling data from California last year suggests that the state's expanded bottle bill — which the plastics and packaging industry fought - brought in significant new material, Franklin said.
California collected 118.1 million pounds of PET in its container-deposit program in 2000, compared with 84.6 million in 1999, according to figures from the state's Department of Conservation.
The state expanded its bottle bill effective Jan. 1, 2000. The California Integrated Waste Management Board said in a report last month that the bulk of the increase in plastics recycling in the state in 2000 came from the expanded container deposit law, which added juice bottles and other containers to the program.
Nationwide, the amount of PET collected for recycling grew by 18 million pounds in 2000, according to APC's report.
Franklin said that means if California had not expanded its bottle bill, the country actually may have recycled less PET in 2000 than in 1999.
APC officials said they have not looked at California's figures but are working on their own programs to boost recycling. They plan to roll out additional campaigns for their all-bottles recycling programs at the National Recycling Congress next month. That effort focuses on educating consumers that they should put all plastic bottles, not just soft drink containers, into recycling bins.
Container-deposit programs increase consumers' costs, said Barb Halpin, associate director of APC's technical assistance program to recyclers.
All-bottles programs typically raise collection 12-15 percent, she said. About 15 percent of communities across the country have all-bottles collection, she said.
Both APC's and NAPCOR's reports said the biggest problem facing plastics recyclers is a lack of material being collected. APC said PET recyclers used just 61 percent of capacity in 2000 and high density polyethylene recyclers used 54 percent.
NAPCOR President Luke Schmidt could not be reached for comment, but the trade group's report said the issue took on new importance in 2000.
``Irrespective of why bottle collection is not increasing, this industry - which may be singular in its dependency on publicly initiated/voluntary efforts for its feedstock - recognized in 2000 that the need to increase bottle collection had become critical,'' the report said.