The PET bottle recycling rate dipped slightly in 2003 to 19.6 percent, even as Asian markets bought record amounts of recycled plastic, a new report says.
Environmentalists used the report, from the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C., to renew calls to boost recycling, including through container-deposit laws.
The big picture for U.S. PET recycling largely remained the same: PET use continues to grow, mainly in bottled water and isotonic drinks, but recycling is not keeping pace.
Add to that the skyrocketing demand from Chinese firms scouring the United States to buy material, and it was a difficult year for U.S. PET recyclers, according to NAPCOR in Charlotte, N.C.
``It's a scary picture,'' said Robin Cotchan, director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Arlington, Va. ``We want to be able to increase the supply enough to support the domestic market as well as the ever-increasing export market.''
NAPCOR said 841 million pounds of PET were collected for recycling last year, out of about 4.29 billion pounds sold, for a recycling rate of 19.6 percent. That compares with a recycling rate of 19.9 percent in 2002, when 797 million pounds were collected, from 4 billion pounds used.
Overall, the NAPCOR report shows that as U.S. collection of PET bottles for recycling has remained at about 800 million pounds for the past several years, Chinese exports have climbed. In 1998, about 90 million pounds were exported to all countries, compared with 2003, when 299 million pounds went to China alone.
The report also noted a big drop in recycled PET used in fiber applications since 2001, from 436 million pounds to 296 million pounds last year.
Some of those textile markets for PET may be lost to the United States because they have migrated overseas, but there are nonwoven fiber applications that could pick up the slack, said Mike Schedler, NAPCOR vice president of technology.
The report also noticed a sizable jump in the amount of recycled PET used in beverage containers, to about 106 million pounds, mainly by Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc.
Environmentalists said the stagnant U.S. recycling rate points to a need to collect more material. Jenny Gitlitz, research director for the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., said states with deposit systems typically recycle at least 70 percent of their containers.
She said voluntary programs or education efforts are not going to work, and industry efforts to repeal existing bottle bills are ``obstructionist and counterproductive.'' She said her group, which always has been pro-bottle bill, is open to other solutions as long as they achieve 70-85 percent recycling in a reasonably short time.
Over the longer term, the PET recycling rate has dropped sharply: In 1995, it was 39.7 percent, as 775 million pounds were recycled, out of 1.95 billion pounds used in PET bottles.
For much of the late 1990s, the PET industry said recycling slowed because of the growth of 20-ounce soft drink bottles, which typically are consumed away from home and away from convenient recycling locations.
Now, the industry adds the growth of bottled water, up 23 percent in 2003, and other beverages like sports drinks to the list of why PET recycling is flagging.
NAPCOR officials declined to talk about ways to boost collection, but industry officials generally have said that bottle bills impose burdens on them and can weaken curbside systems. This year's report is NAPCOR's first since the group laid off most of its staff, including its president, in a budget-cutting move earlier this year.