Plastic container recycling essentially held steady in 2001, as strong export markets masked softer demand in the United States, according to an Oct. 25 report from the American Plastics Council.
APC's annual recycling report said the recycling rate for bottles rose to 21.6 percent from 21.5 percent in 2001, as rates for both PET and high density polyethylene bottles rose slightly. The rate for PET bottles rose to 22.1 percent from 22 percent, while for HDPE bottles, it rose to 23.2 percent from 23 percent.
Arlington, Va.-based APC said the amount of plastic bottles collected for recycling hit an all-time high, nearly 1.59 billion pounds, compared with 1.51 billion pounds last year.
Some analysts said the report shows that recycling is stagnating and that there have been equal increases in the amount of plastic thrown into landfills.
Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., said the recycling rate for PET soft drink bottles essentially was the same in 2001 as it was in 1991 - 35.1 percent.
The APC report showed 80 million more pounds of plastic collected for recycling in 2001 - the second-highest increase in the past six years. But the report also showed that the amount of plastic bottles sent to landfills increased 276 million pounds to 7.37 billion pounds, as recycling just kept pace with the growth in plastic packaging.
``Essentially, recycling is taking tiny, tiny baby steps - but wasting is just continuing,'' Franklin said. ``We're still wasting three to four times more than we're recycling.''
Pete Dinger, APC technology director, said getting enough material from community recycling programs continues to be a challenge.
``We've been saying that collection has been a problem for some time - something has to happen to stimulate the consumer to recycle more,'' he said.
The APC report said supply of bottles continued to lag behind demand, and it cited several factors that continue to hamper collection:
* Maturing infrastructure.
* Reduced state and local recycling budgets.
* Lack of ongoing community education for curbside and drop-off programs.
* Increased consumption of beverages away from home.
In its report, APC said consumer education is the key to promoting recycling. APC has technical assistance programs available to communities and is promoting the ``all-bottle'' curbside collection program to boost recycling from curbside and drop-off systems.
But Franklin faulted the report for not mentioning what she said is a major driver of recycling - bottle bills. APC opposes them, but Franklin said deposit systems have a recycling rate three to four times that of the national average.
A study last year, for example, found that curbside programs recycle 18 percent of containers, while bottle bills recycle 54-61 percent.
The APC report said, ``The supply of plastic bottles from municipal recycling programs remains the industry's most significant challenge,'' but Franklin said the report does not offer optimism that recycling will increase significantly, absent major changes.
``If I read between these lines, the message I get is you are not going to see recycling rates get much above what we have here, without some new visionary program or without deposits in other states,'' Franklin said. ``This is pretty much what we're stuck with.''
The APC report also said consolidation in the recycling industry in 2001 pushed capacity utilization figures to higher levels - 65 percent for PET and 58 percent for HDPE.
The report said demand for recycled plastics in the United States was sluggish in 2001, particularly in the major PET end market of fibers, but growth in exports helped to combat that.
Dinger said that anecdotally, recyclers are reporting a very strong year this year, even as they cope with complications in the recycling stream from new bottle barriers and other technology.