In her letter to the editor, “U.S. recycling stream flowing away to Asia,” Jan. 26, page 6, Robin Cotchan, Executive Director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, spoke to the supply crisis facing the plastics recycling industry.
In her focus on Asian exports, Ms. Cotchan correctly identifies one of two crucial supply issues facing the PET reclaiming industry. The other issue is the lack of an adequate collection infrastructure. While the domestic PET container business has doubled in size during the past decade, from 2 billion to 4 billion pounds per year, the recycling rate has dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent. As a result, roughly 3.2 billion pounds of recyclable bottles are going into landfills each year while the domestic PET reclaiming industry is starved for feedstocks. The combined impact of stagnant supply and growing competition from Asia are tightening the noose on this important recycling industry.
The only proven way to bridge the gap between supply and demand is to implement new and expanded domestic “bottle bills” that rely on the financial incentive of a 5-10 cent refund to encourage the recycling of beverage containers. State-mandated deposit/refund systems, operated by the beverage industry, have a 30-year record of success. These programs work in rural as well as urban settings, and are successful in capturing containers purchased for away-from-home consumption, a growing trend in the beverage industry.
The track record of bottle bills in recovering beverage bottles and cans is unparalleled. The 10 existing bottle-bill states achieve an average recovery rate of 70 percent for containers covered under the deposit system, while the recovery rate in most nondeposit states is in the single digits. But bottle bills are met with powerful opposition by the beverage companies that prefer to have recycling subsidized by taxpayers. While municipal curbside programs have a role to play in recovering post-consumer materials, the reality is that PET recycling rates have been cut in half during the past 10 years despite continued growth in the population served by curbside recycling. Municipal curbside programs typically do not capture containers consumed away from home.
Coke and Pepsi recently committed publicly to using 10 percent recycled content in their plastic bottles. Unless these twin issues, lack of supply and Asian competition, are addressed, the goals set forth by the beverage companies may be unattainable in the long term. Moreover, the collapse of a domestic industry and a growing PET waste problem are staring us in the face.
Container Recycling Institute