The U.S. plastic bottle recycling rate fell slightly in 2002, fueled by a continued sharp drop in the rate for PET bottles, according to new figures from the American Plastics Council.
APC figures, released Dec. 18, did show one bright spot - the recycling rate for high density polyethylene bottles rose at its fastest rate since 1995.
The rise in HDPE recycling meant that the overall rate fell only from 21.6 percent in 2001 to 21 percent in 2002. Here's the breakdown: the PET rate dropped from 22.1 percent to 19.8 percent, while HDPE rose a full percentage point, from 23.2 to 24.2.
APC pinned the disparity on consumption patterns for the two major bottle resins. PET bottles such as soft-drink and water containers increasingly are consumed away from home, while HDPE containers such as shampoo and milk bottles are used largely in the home, where they are more likely to be recycled.
One environmental group said that the falling bottle recycling rates could be reversed if bottle bills were more widely adopted.
The Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., criticized industry groups for fighting bottle-deposit legislation, but APC and other industry groups argue that they impose additional costs and bureaucracy.
Most of the drop in the PET rate came from soft-drink bottles, which fell from a recycling rate of 35 percent in 2001 to 31 percent in 2002. APC said the rate is falling because of popular single-serve containers sold in mini-markets, gas stations, and other convenience locations.
``We're still struggling as to how to get consumers to recycle materials they consume elsewhere [than home],'' said Pete Dinger, technology director for APC and its parent, the American Chemistry Council, both in Arlington, Va.
While there clearly is demand for more recycled plastic, communities do not have the funding to focus on recycling and the issue does not have a high public profile, Dinger said.
``The only conclusion I could draw as to why high density [polyethylene] is doing so well is that it is consumed within feet of a recycling bin,'' he said.
Pat Franklin, CRI executive director, said the drop in PET recycling is likely to continue.
``You have the soft-drink recycling rate dropping to its lowest point in 11 years,'' she said. ``This is just a downward spiral and it doesn't look like it's going to be reversed.''
Franklin said bottle-bill states recycle much more material than nondeposit systems. Assuming a conservative 65 percent recycling rate in bottle-bill systems, Franklin said the 80 million people living in bottle-bill states recycled 4.5 billion PET soft drink containers in 2002.
The 207 million people living in non-bottle-bill states, by comparison, recycled just 3.2 billion soft-drink containers.
The report noted a number of changes in the market:
* The wash capacity for both PET and HDPE decreased for the second year in a row, with the PET industry losing 80 million pounds and the HDPE industry losing 60 million pounds.
* Post-consumer PET use in food and beverage bottles rose 6 percent, mainly from increased RPET use by Coca-Cola and Pepsi, while demand in the fiber and film and sheet markets fell.
* Many markets for recycled HDPE expanded, including bottles, film and plastic lumber and some nontraditional markets, such as automotive truck bedliners and mud flaps.
* Asia continued to be a strong market for U.S. recycled resin, with PET bottle exports up 275 million pounds, a jump of 17.5 percent over 2001, and HDPE exports up 105 million pounds. APC cautioned that the figures are likely understated because it's tough to gather good information in the export market.
* ``All-bottle'' recycling programs pushed by APC and other industry groups have been increasing 15 percent annually. Such programs can increase bottle recycling 10-12 percent, APC said.