Curbside recycling of plastic bottles got a tremendous boost with Waste Management Inc.'s recent decision to open a second all-bottles plastic recycling facility.
The Houston-based company's Recycle America Alliance subsidiary plans to open a plant in Chicago in early 2004. The facility will handle 100 million pounds of plastic a year, duplicating a plant in Youngsville, N.C., that started production last year. That plant is due to be replaced by a new facility in Raleigh, N.C., later this year.
If you start one 100 million-pound-per-year plant, people might think you're interested in plastics recycling. Open a second less than two years later, and suddenly this starts to look like a serious business.
Waste Management doesn't have anything to gain by subsidizing plastics recycling, so this news should silence critics who feel that we should be burning rather than reclaiming waste plastic.
The capacity of the two plants - 200 million pounds - is significant. This is not just a pilot project built to prove plastics can be recycled, like so many similar-sounding ventures in the 1990s. Remember, just 1.6 billion pounds of plastic bottles were collected for recycling in 2001 - the last year for which statistics are available - and that total includes containers from deposit programs. These Recycle America plants will handle a huge chunk of the plastic currently collected from U.S. curbside programs. According to Waste Management, the Chicago facility will take material from as far as North Dakota and Colorado, and the two plants together will be able to handle material from 60 percent of the United States.
Why is boosting curbside collection of plastics important? Mainly because of the explosion in new types of bottles made from PET and high density polyethylene. Traditional collection programs that accept limited types of containers are leaving significant volumes of PET and HDPE behind. All-bottles collection is a simple way to capture a bigger share of that stream.
The American Plastics Council contends that switching to an all-bottles approach can boost the amount of bottles collected by an average of 12 percent. Today, though, only about 10 percent of U.S. communities do all-bottles collection.
Why does this make sense now? The key seems to be refinements to the technology for automated sorting of plastics. Recyclers no longer are tied to having teams of low-paid workers checking every bale of bottles by hand. Automated sorting is being done on a large scale in Europe, too, as well as by large U.S. PET recyclers that depend on high technology to keep contaminants out of their end products.
We endorse all-bottles collection and encourage processors to work in their communities to expand plastics recycling programs. It makes sense economically, and it's good for the reputation of the industry.
Still, encouraging all-bottles recycling is only half of the formula needed to boost U.S. plastics recycling. While curbside recycling is important, it does very little to deal with another growing and valuable plastics recycling stream: single-serve PET bottles purchased on the run and consumed away from home. These water, soda, tea and sports drink containers far too frequently end up in the trash or worse, as litter. There's an effective prescription for handling that problem too: more state bottle-deposit programs.