(March 14, 2005) — Watching Phil Cavin give a speech at an environmental conference, it's pretty easy to see why the plastics industry gets itself tied into knots on recycling policy.
Cavin, an executive with carpet maker and plastic bottle recycler Mohawk Industries Inc., was trying to talk about the challenges that the industry faces, like PET bottle recycling rates that have dropped from 40 percent in 1995 to less than 20 percent now.
The knot came when he started to get into what to do about it, when he started saying the words that amount to the third rail of recycling politics — bottle bills.
Recyclers like them. The soft drink industry and grocers don't, though, and some of their heavyweight suppliers, including resin suppliers and bottle makers, generally follow along.
So Cavin carefully peppered his speech at the Society of Plastics Engineers Global Plastics Environmental Conference last month with references to how he understands why there is opposition, and how he was not endorsing or pushing bottle bills. It's a point he made several times.
But then he walked the audience through a few facts: The 10 states with active deposit bills have recycling rates of between 60 and 80 percent. States without deposits recycle a whole lot less. Cavin estimated that in his home state of Georgia, where the GPEC conference was being held, only 10 percent of PET bottles are recycled.
“I'm not up here advocating bottle bills,” he said. “But you can't argue with the numbers bottle bills produce.”
Cavin understands recycling. Mo-hawk, in Dalton, Ga., is a major carpet producer and one of the largest U.S. PET bottle recyclers, putting 220 million pounds a year of recycled bottles into carpet.
He has a clear self-interest. More recycling benefits his firm with cheaper raw materials. But it is hard to argue with those bottle-bill numbers. Because overall recycling rates are dropping or stagnating, depending on the material, it's hard for recyclers to get a good supply. And China is buying up more and more U.S. waste plastic.
The Association of Postconsum-er Plastic Recyclers tied itself into knots last year when it toyed with a policy statement about the effectiveness of bottle bills. It ultimately abandoned that, in the face of opposition from the soft drink industry, which helps fund the group.
The soft drink industry and other bottle-bill opponents have legitimate concerns. But the beverage industry and its plastics allies have not come up with a proven, effective program they can support to turn around a situation that Cavin said requires “drastic” action.
Bottle bills are not the only solution, but by standing in the way, industry's on the wrong side of this environmental issue.