Like the old Chinese curse, recyclers certainly do live in interesting times.
They suffer just like the rest of the plastics industry when the economy goes sour. But add in legislators angry about falling bottle-recycling rates, technical complications from a lot of new bottles made to satisfy consumer demands and a push for more recycling in automotive and electronics companies, and you've got a very interesting mix.
In this, our annual Recycling Report Card, we reflect on their accomplishments and failures in the past year.
Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling: Incomplete
The BEAR group started with a lot of promise. It brought environmentalists, Coca-Cola Co. and others together to analyze the costs of bottle recycling. The hope certainly was that it could get past some of the bitter bottle-bill debates.
The work's not done yet, though, and it's hard to tell how close BEAR will get to that goal. Coke pulled out of the process, leaving BEAR to do some soul-searching. Lately there have been some hints that the group may restart the dialogue with some beverage industry participation. Until we know for sure, BEAR gets high marks for effort, but the final paper hasn't been turned in.
Coca-Cola Co: C
Coke deserves credit for participating with BEAR, and for getting recycled content into its PET bottles in a serious way in 2001. But the company also pulled out of the BEAR process and has not offered any clear way forward to increase beverage container recycling. That knocks the firm down from last year's B grade. Coke needs to get back into a dialogue with BEAR.
PepsiCo Inc: D
Pepsi fares a little better than last year's failing grade, because it did come forward with a commitment to get to 10 percent recycled content in its PET bottles. But Pepsi hasn't offered any details about how it will get there, and the company has shown much less interest in engaging in any serious dialogue about how to solve the problem of falling container recycling rates than its archrival Coke.
Both companies are making a lot of money off profitable single-serve packaging, but those containers are really hurting recycling rates because most are consumed and thrown out away from home, where recycling is easiest. The companies need to take more responsibility for those problems.
The state gets to move to the head of the class for passing a bottle bill - the first to be adopted in the United States since 1986. There are some legitimate questions to be answered about how the system will work, but it's a positive step.
National Electronics Products Stewardship Initiative: B
NEPSI, a group of electronics original equipment manufacturers, environmentalists and government officials, announced a tentative plan in March to boost electronics recycling by charging front-end fees. The group also agreed to support federal legislation to make that happen.
While many details have yet to be worked out, that kind of serious cooperation between the private sector and the public sector needs to be applauded. It's the best way to design a system that is environmentally friendly and imposes as few burdens as possible on industry.
American Plastics Council: C
In the past year APC finally went forward with its long-rumored - and long-denied - plan to merge with the American Chemistry Council. The good news is that, even with the inevitable staff and budget cuts taking place, APC has shown no sign that it will abandon the technical assistance it provides to recyclers and support it gives the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
Most important, APC still sponsors the annual plastics recycling survey - although we wish it would ease up on trying to make the annual bad news look good.
APC also gets credit for continuing to push all-bottle recycling as a means of boosting recycling rates. That is an idea worth trying.
Plastic lumber manufacturers: A-
Plastic lumber is a rare segment of the plastics industry that's showing encouraging growth. That should continue, thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency's phaseout of wood treated with chromated copper arsenate.
Lumber makers have some experience under their belts and are making durable products worth the premium price they carry. It is encouraging to see growth from some of the pioneering lumber companies like Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc., which is investing $18 million in a production facility for composite decking and railing.
Why an A- and not an A? First, the sector has experienced a lot of consolidation in the past few years, and with all the new capacity, more is sure to come. Second, lumber makers increasingly are facing competition from extruders that are making nearly identical products using virgin resin. Can recycled-content lumber hold on to the market? We hope so.
DaimlerChrysler AG Vehicle Recycling Partnership: Incomplete
This pilot project has proved that fluff from auto interiors can be recycled, even without resorting to making all-polyolefin interiors, which previously seemed inevitable. If the research holds up, that is important news for vehicle dismantlers and automakers, which soon will be dealing with strict end-of-life vehicle regulations in Europe. The key will be to turn the research into commercial reality.
Society of Plastics Engineers Plastics Environmental Division: B
This group, formerly known as the Plastics Recycling Division, changed its name and broadened its mission to include issues like design for the environment and energy efficiency. And it didn't turn its back on recycling, which played a key part in the group's annual Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held Feb. 13-14 in Detroit.
European PVC industry: Incomplete
PVC makers in Europe, under some threat of new government regulation, are in the midst of a $230 million investment in environmental efforts by 2010. The newest: Vinyloop Ferrara SpA, which recently started recycling post-consumer PVC in Ferra, Italy, mostly from electrical cables.
Supporters hope the plant will be the first in a network of PVC recycling facilities around the world. That sounds great, but we've learned from experience to be skeptical of such claims when they come under the threat of government action, and before the technology is shown to be commercially viable for a few years.