Once upon a time, folks in the plastics recycling community were straight shooters. Or, rather, shoot-from-the-hip types who spoke their minds and didn't care whom they offended. In fact, their words often were aimed at offending someone.
An example, for those of you who remember: Marty Forman, a scrap metal dealer who once ran a Milwaukee company called Polly Anna Plastics Products Inc. He last ruffled feathers back in 1994, when he had the chutzpah to question the accuracy of the American Plastics Council's annual recycling survey, and he advised fellow recyclers not to cooperate with the effort.
One of the more colorful Forman quotes (there were so many!) came from a letter to the editor to us about the APC survey. He wrote: “My greatest disappointment is only that I have been so alone among my peers in speaking out for what many of them believe in, too. It would have been nice to have others helping me to brand the anti-recycling wolves in sheep's clothing known as the American Plastics Council for what they truly are — skunks.”
Forman had a way of attracting attention.
Today, debates in the plastics recycling arena have all the excitement of a chess match — they're interesting to those involved, but not exactly electrifying. Take, for example, the current dispute over whether new varieties of PET bottles for beer and other products are going to cause problems for recyclers.
Recyclers are afraid new colors, like amber, and barriers are going to gum up the works in a system that runs pretty smoothly right now. At the least, it appears they may have to invest in new equipment to sort these new bottles. Otherwise, they'll have to live with more contamination, meaning less cash for their finished product.
Yesterday's recyclers would have complained, written letters, signed petitions, called for legislation … raised a little hell. But today's recyclers seem almost afraid to speak their minds.
How come? A number of reasons, really. Recyclers today are more corporate, less entrepreneurial. They also have more experience — they're confident that they're going to be around next year, and five years from now.
Also, the recycling sector has become a mishmash of relationships among independent companies, bottle makers and resin suppliers. Ten years ago, some of the biggest plastics recyclers were owned by resin suppliers. Although they've all quietly left the scene, suppliers manage to keep their influence with critical financial, technical and logistical support to recycling efforts and groups.
The role of bottle makers is critical. Of the top 20 post-consumer plastic recyclers in our 2001 ranking, five were owned by or closely associated with major blow molders. Those aren't the sort of companies that are going to tell a major customer like Coca-Cola Co., or a potential customer like Anheuser-Busch Inc., that it shouldn't make bottles using new colors or barriers.
The critical question, then, is: Are recyclers today looking out for the best interests of plastics recycling? Or are other issues, like the profitability of their parent firms, playing too large a role?
The jury is out on that question. The calmness of the debate seems to indicate recyclers aren't working hard enough to protect their industry. But the fact that the debate is going on in the first place is a very good sign.