The bottom line on PET recycling in 2002 is pretty grim. In a nutshell, the latest industry figures show that it's basically stagnated since 1995 in the United States.
The amount of PET recycled from bottles, 797 million pounds, is about the same as in 1995. The problem is the popularity of PET — we all use about twice as many PET bottles as seven years ago, but we're not recycling twice as many.
In 1995, we used 1.95 billion pounds of PET. Now, we use 4 billion pounds of PET in bottles. In 1995, the recycling rate for PET containers was 39.7 percent. In 2002, it was 19.9 percent.
It's a familiar story to those who follow the topic. The figures are contained in the National Association for PET Container Resources' latest report on recycling.
While NAPCOR would not put it this way, it's clear from the report that efforts to boost PET recycling have failed.
There are a lot of reasons why: We all drink more 20- and 24- ounce bottles away from home, where we're less likely to recycle and there are fewer chances for us to recycle, and the whole topic is not the public priority it once was. Cash-strapped state and local governments don't have the money to put more into recycling programs.
And much of the growth for PET has come from water and juice bottles, containers that traditionally are not covered by the workhorses of recycling: bottle bills.
On the demand side, NAPCOR's report makes it clear that 2002 was a difficult year. The amount of recycled PET consumed in the United States fell dramatically as fiber and sheet makers found quality virgin material at bargain prices.
But it also notes that the Chinese export market continues to take any and all recycled PET it can get. China, along with the companies making recycled PET for beverage bottles, were the strong markets last year.
Recycling policy cannot be made in a vacuum that ignores markets, but if fiber markets rebound to normal levels, China maintains its appetite and beverage companies continue to use more recycled PET in their bottles, it seems that demand will be there.
Which makes the failure of recycling policies all the more unfortunate.
NAPCOR and its industry partners, like Coca-Cola Co., have worked hard to institute PET recycling programs at big events like pro baseball games and car races. Those are valuable efforts, but they don't, unfortunately, make a real dent in the problem, as the numbers show.
We've long advocated bottle bills, the solution favored by environmentalists, and the soft drink industry long has opposed them. Other solutions, along the lines of Ontario's packaging producer responsibility debate, are worth considering.
The beverage and packaging industries, including PET, need to offer realistic proposals to address the problem.
The bottom line is that the existing recycling infrastructure is not working. That should be front and center.