As recycling rates for PET bottles have dropped, the PET industry hopes to score big with a new partner: professional sports.
In the past year the National Association for PET Container Resources has implemented what it says are several successful efforts to boost plastic bottle collection at sports events, and it hopes to do more.
The Colorado Rockies, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Seattle Mariners now have comprehensive programs to collect the bottles, after smaller trials last year. In addition, a partnership with Coca-Cola Co. at a major stock-car racing event in Atlanta also gave industry officials valuable information.
The appeal is clear: a captive audience of tens of thousands of fans drinking water, soft drinks and beer in PET. The teams have their stadium trash-cleanup crews simply collect the plastic separately from garbage. If the program is done right, the trials have shown that 90-95 percent of the park's containers can be recovered and recycled, NAPCOR said.
``If all teams in major-league baseball did it, and we got 80-90 percent recovery, that is a lot of volume out there,'' said Don Kneass, vice president for regional affairs in NAPCOR's Seattle office.
How much, exactly?
If every sports stadium in all major professional sports did it, NAPCOR estimates an additional 20 million pounds of PET would be collected each year.
That is a lot, but it may not do very much to combat falling recycling rates, according to Ken Scott, a portfolio manager with Walden Asset Management in Boston, an investment firm that has been pressuring soft drink manufacturers to do more to boost PET recycling.
Industry officials have outlined to Walden and other investment groups their plans for boosting recycling at stadiums and large events, he said.
``That is great work,'' Scott said. However, ``our concern remains that the sum total of what we've heard - all stadiums and all the one-time events - would only add up to a few percent.''
Collecting 20 million pounds in 2000, the last year for which statistics are available, would have raised the PET bottle recycling rate from 22.3 percent to 22.9 percent. Since 1995, the PET bottle recycling rate has fallen from 39.7 percent.
Scott wants the industry to work toward an 80 percent recycling rate, the general rate achieved by bottle-deposit programs.
Kneass said the stadium program is not meant to be a cure-all, and he said the industry does other things to boost recycling, such as grant programs for schools and communities and efforts to make local curbside programs more efficient.
``There's no magic bullet here,'' he said. ``It just seemed that one way to make an immediate difference of the scale available is to go after the stadiums. It's easier to set a program up. You can control the contamination.''
Coors Field, the home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, modified its post-game cleanup to pick up plastic bottles separately from trash. The stadium also has 12 reverse vending machines that give out discount coupons randomly when fans return bottles.
For the stadiums, cost is a key factor - although Coors Field did not see any increases in its trash costs.
``It's actually worked fine for us,'' said Kevin Kahn, vice president of ballpark operations with the Rockies. ``There have been no issues - no substantial increase in costs.''
Other stadiums have seen similar results, NAPCOR said. At last year's three-game trial in Seattle, it cost the Mariners only $400 extra per game to recycle, Kneass said. Cost figures for this year are not in, but Seattle has made some changes that should make it more efficient, he said.
The Mariners collected an average of 1,970 pounds of plastic, almost 1 ton, at each of the three games last year. The Mariners were selling out games, and they have a lot of PET in the packaging mix, he said.
The longest-running effort so far is with the Milwaukee Brewers, who have been collecting bottles in a separate cleanup effort after games since June. That post-game bottle pickup has proved best, Kneass said.
Markets for the material have varied, mainly by geography. As with most recycled plastics, the West Coast is a stronger market because of access to demand in Asia, while programs in the Midwest, like Milwaukee's, have a tougher time, Kneass said.
But the value of the material is good, he said: ``The quality of the material should be pretty close to bottle-bill material. This material sometimes has more contamination.''
While the efforts thus far have worked, both Kneass and Kahn said it remains an individual team's decision. NAPCOR is trying to entice pro hockey and football teams to start, but it considers baseball the best bet because of the large number of games and large crowds.
NAPCOR has developed materials to help stadiums collect bottles, and is able to help with program design and marketing for materials collected, Kneass said.