North of the northern U.S. border, plastics recycling is looking different.
Plastic container recycling rates in Canada are rising, while they fall or stagnate in the United States. Local governments in the United States are struggling to boost recycling, while Canadian provinces are adopting far-reaching systems based on a ``producer responsibility'' model that forces packagers to pay for a good chunk of municipal recycling programs.
The Canadian programs, and much-smaller efforts in two U.S. states, took center stage at a recycling seminar Jan. 23 in Bal Harbour, sponsored by the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Re- cyclers. The Arlington, Va.-based group was trying to show how governments are reacting to challenges facing recyclers.
``In the Great White North, things have really changed,'' said Derek Stephenson, manager of Stewardship Ontario, which collects fees from industry to support recycling in the province.
Stephenson and other speakers were not suggesting that governments in the United States would adopt similar approaches.
But he said in Ontario, the government wants to build more of the costs of recycling into the product, and requires packaging companies to pay 50 percent of the price tag to support recycling programs. Ontario has a goal of a 60 percent recycling rate by 2008.
``Every year the government looks at the recycling rate for plastics and says, `Why is it so low?' '' he said. ``We explain markets and economics and physics, and they say, `Why is it so low?'''
The recycling rate in 2003 for all plastic packaging in Ontario was 16 percent, ranging from 50 percent for PET and high density polyethylene bottles to 5.6 percent for film and 1 percent for plastic laminate.
In 2005, recycling in Ontario will cost industry C$118 million (US$95.3 million), with about C$31 million (US$25 million) of that coming from plastic packaging firms. He said other provinces are pushing similar approaches, and he predicts the entire country will be covered in three years.
Michael Schedler, technology vice president for the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., said a few states in the United States are paying attention to falling recycling rates, including California and Oregon. He noted that others, like Wisconsin, have recycled-content laws that they do not enforce.
Schedler urged packaging companies to be aware of state concerns and the market signals governments are sending. APR held its event in conjunction with the Nova-Pack Americas conference.
``If you don't understand the laws, you as packaging manufacturers or consumer product companies will be at a disadvantage,'' Schedler said. ``And I don't say that lightly.''
California, for example, recently imposed new processing fees on container makers to support recycling, with relatively high fees for resins like polypropylene and HDPE, and a small fee for PET. The state's rigid plastic packaging container law now requires about 75 companies a year to prove they use recycled content.
Officials in Oregon are watching recycling as well.
A state law requires some container makers to use recycled content if the plastic recycling rate falls below 25 percent. The rate has dropped and hovered near that threshold. In 2003, the last year for which figures are available, it stood at 27 percent.
Peter Spendelow, a policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the rate may well fall below 25 percent, but state officials are not sure what steps they would take.
``We don't know exactly how we'd enforce [the law],'' he said. ``We haven't had to do that in awhile.''
Recyclers at the event had several messages. Some echoed state officials, and said falling recycling rates need to be reversed.
Thomas Busard, vice president of Plastipak Packaging Inc. in Plymouth, Mich., said it is disturbing that recycling rates are falling in the United States while they are rising in other countries.
``We're concerned that, if the U.S. declining recycling rate trend is not reversed quickly, we could see more legislation directed at packaging and bottles, which could limit design innovation and flexibility,'' he said.
Nationally, the PET bottle recycling rate has dropped from 40 percent in 1995 to just under 20 percent.
Recyclers at the event were unanimous in saying they need more material.
Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales for HDPE recycler Envision Plastics in Reidsville, N.C., said that for her company to get enough material, it has to deal with lower-quality goods that require more reprocessing.
Envision operations Vice President William Boyd said supply will remain tight. He predicts the HDPE recycling industry will continue to consolidate, which should increase capacity utilization above its current 68 percent level.