The PET industry could face unpleasant legislation if the recycling rate doesn't turn around and the industry doesn't do enough to address recycling problems caused by new technology like better barriers and new bottle colors.
That's the message that came through at an Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers conference aimed at bridging the gap between package designers and recyclers. APR, based in Arlington, Va., held the event Feb. 2 in conjunction with Nova-Pack Americas 2003 in Orlando.
``In order for the brand owners to continue growing the PET industry, the recycling industry needs to increase its ability to keep the recycling rate up,'' said Louis Tacito, seminar coordinator and president of testing laboratory Plastics Forming Enterprises Inc. in Manchester, N.H.
Not that there aren't encouraging signs - the two biggest soft drink manufacturers are moving ahead with plans to use 10 percent recycled PET in bottles, and the carpet industry and Chinese export markets remain hungry for more recycled material.
Some speakers touted examples in which brand owners like Coca-Cola Co. have worked with recyclers to introduce new bottle designs, like Coke's Dasani-brand, blue-tinted PET water bottle, without hurting recyclers.
But challenges remain.
One of the biggest for the industry is the PET recycling rate, which has plummeted from 40 percent in 1995 to 22 percent in 2001.
``Continued decline in the PET recycling rate will result in additional legislative pressure,'' said Mike Schedler, vice president of technology for the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C.
He said legislators will look for ways to increase collection, including bottle bills, and to boost demand with recycled content.
Schedler said single-serve containers - which many target as a reason for declining recycling rates - grew to be 60 percent of the PET bottle stream in 2001, up from just 40 percent in 1999.
Jerry Powell, editor of trade magazine Plastics Recycling Update, said alliances forming among state recycling officials are important to watch. Those relationships started as a way to deal with computer waste issues, but Powell predicts officials will turn their attention to container and beverage firms and ask for product stewardship on recycling.
Recyclers also face challenges from new barrier layers, coating technologies and colors, and new products from PET cans to bottles made from Cargill Dow's biodegradable polymer.
David Hurd, northeast environmental coordinator for Tetra-Pak Inc. in Vernon Hills, Ill., urged firms to use APR's Design for Recyclability guidelines and participate in the group's Champions for Change process, which evaluates packages for recycling but does not endorse recyclability.
While many new technologies have gone through that process and demonstrated that, individually, they don't harm the recycling system, Hurd said APR is not able to say what will happen when all those technologies start appearing in greater numbers.
``I think it is still the big question mark,'' he said.