Recyclers and recycling advocates could be missing a golden opportunity to improve sagging plastic bottle recycling rates significantly.
Since humans began roaming the earth, demand often has dictated supply. Basically, if someone wants something, there is someone else willing to provide it - for a price.
But demand for recycled PET containers from carpet makers, beverage companies, strapping manufacturers and overseas buyers is outpacing supply.
Recovered PET prices have reached an average of about 25 cents per pound, but that premium still hasn't been enough to increase container recovery.
``We're playing musical chairs right now in the PET recycling industry, with 10 players and seven chairs,'' said Phil Cavin, national procurement director for carpet maker Mohawk Industries Inc. ``Everyone right now is just scrambling to get material, and prices are through the roof.''
Mohawk, based in Calhoun, Ga., is one of the nation's largest PET recyclers. The company uses recovered material in its carpeting and is a major supplier of recycled PET resin.
Despite the strong market and increased demand, the 2003 recovery rate for plastic soda, water and other PET bottles fell for the eighth consecutive year since 1995. That year, the United States recovered 39.7 percent. But that rate sunk to 19.6 percent in 2003, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, N.C.
``There's plenty of bottles to go around, but they're just not being collected,'' Cavin said. ``It's terrible right now. Nobody sees any relief in sight.''
In 2003, U.S. recyclers produced 667 million pounds of clean flake from recovered post-consumer PET bottles, exporting 255 million pounds of that, according to NAPCOR.
That same year, U.S. manufacturers consumed 552 million pounds of recovered PET. Fiber product manufacturers, which include carpet makers, led the pack, using 296 million pounds. Food and beverage bottle manufacturers consumed 106 million pounds, and the strapping industry 77 million pounds. Sheet and film producers, nonfood bottle makers and engineered resin producers used 32 million, 24 million and 10 million pounds, respectively. Some 7 million pounds were consumed by other sources.
It is not a new issue, said Mike Shedler, NAPCOR vice president of technology.
``We've had a demand imbalance for quite some time,'' he said. ``There have been meetings and committees and studies and everything else that people have talked about over the years in terms of how we can address supply issues. Not a whole lot, though, has happened.''
Stuck in the middle
Many people agree that container-deposit laws, or bottle bills, are effective in recovering PET bottles, but stakeholders are split on their support, said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va. Beverage manufacturers, the grocery industry and retailers oppose bottle bills.
Recyclers are stuck in the middle, Franklin said. Major beverage companies are their customers, whether buying processed material from recyclers or selling them recovered bottles, she said.
``It's like they've got a gag order,'' Franklin said.
Recycling advocates praise the effectiveness of bottle bills. The 10 states that have had deposit laws running for some time - Hawaii, the most recent state to pass deposit legislation, just started its program this year - collect about three of every four bottles consumed, she said. Recovery rates can reach higher than 80 percent in those states.
``You're looking at single-digit recycling rates in nonbottle-bill states,'' she said.
And over the past six to nine months, virgin PET price increases have created even more demand for alternative raw materials, including recovered PET, said Shedler of NAPCOR.
``There's no question we need more supply out there,'' he said. ``The issue is that no one can agree on just how to do it.''
And the incredibly high demand for strapping, which is used to secure a range of products such as baled materials, could add to the need for more PET, Shedler said. Strapping manufacturers are adding capacity to fill orders, as most of them are sold out of product.
``We could essentially double the demand for strapping in the next 12 months,'' he said. ``That would put the strapping segment, in terms of [recovered PET] content, very close to where the carpet industry is today.''
You just might get what you wish for
In 2000, recycling advocacy groups led by the GrassRoots Recycling Network started pressuring Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. to use more recycled PET.
That year, Coke officials agreed to start using 10 percent recycled content in billions of the company's bottles.
In 2002, PepsiCo officials outlined a goal to use 10 percent recycled content in their firm's containers.
But those environmental community victories are putting recyclers and processors on the spot to come up with enough material for everybody.
Coke and Pepsi together are consuming in the neighborhood of an additional 200 million pounds of recovered PET bottles or so per year, according to recycling industry estimates.
The additional demand has led to shortages of 100 million to 200 million pounds per year, according to Cavin.
``That's getting many in the industry upset because that's lessening the quantity that's out there on the market,'' said Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Plastics Council in Arlington. ``It's a valued commodity. It's needed and desired.''
Beverage makers have not had recycled PET shortage issues, though the industry is pursuing ways to increase the amount of material recovered, said Preston Read, vice president of environmental affairs for the American Beverage Association in Washington.
``Our members are getting what they need,'' he said. ``We're not seeing anyone right now saying, `I absolutely can't satisfy my needs.'
``I think it's become a bit more expensive for people to satisfy their needs, but that's the nature of the market.''
Recovered-PET price hikes are likely to entice commercial businesses to recycle more of their waste material instead of throwing it away, Shedler said. But that increase may be only about 10 million pounds.
U.S. PET recyclers collected 841 million pounds of bottles in 2003, the most of any year including 1995, according to NAPCOR. That is the most significant trend, Read said.
``There's been so much growth in the use of the package, and that has a direct bearing on the rate,'' he said.
Most likely, more material will be collected in 2004 and 2005, Shedler said.
``Will it keep pace with any increased demand? No. Not going to happen,'' he said.
Recyclers definitely can handle more material, as many PET processors are operating at about 50 percent capacity, Krebs said.
NAPCOR's 2003 data shows the 14 U.S. PET processing plants had total capacity of 877 million pounds and ran at 71 percent capacity.
To get more PET bottles to those recyclers, APC promotes an all-bottle recycling program that encourages communities to allow residents to put plastic bottles of all types into their recycling bins. The goal is to make it easier for consumers to recycle.
Processors then sort the bottles to separate the grades. The increased material collected offsets the additional costs associated with the sorting, according to APC.
``It brings home to the consumer that there are bottles there that are not being recycled,'' APC's Krebs said.
``There's a tremendous amount of education that needs to happen there.''