(May 16, 2005) — It's an interesting and challenging time for recycling two of the most ubiquitous plastic products, bottles and bags. Both are in high demand from recyclers, and yet serious challenges remain in getting more of them from the trash to the recycling bin.
For both industries, events could soon tell how much progress can be made. There are some nascent efforts under way in both the film and bottle recycling industries that, if properly nurtured, could lead to some real improvements.
For plastic bottles, the most interesting is the two-year-long discussion that a group of soft drink, beer and bottled water companies have been having. The Beverage Packaging Environmental Council is the first time the alcoholic and nonalcoholic drink makers have gotten together to focus on recycling.
That holds real potential, if it can create a solid consensus for action.
BPEC members have not wanted to raise expectations, but others are watching them closely. Local and state governments, for one, are very concerned about flat or falling recycling rates for plastic packaging, and looking for signs from BPEC.
To date, there's been a lot of stalemate. The soft drink and plastic industries point at governments for not spending more on recycling. Environmental groups blame soft drink makers for opposing bottle bills, which for all their flaws do recycle more efficiently than anything else. And governments say they lack money and wonder why the beverage industry can't play a larger role in supporting recycling, like it does in other countries.
On top of that, the Environmental Protection Agency is also beginning a national dialogue on bottle recycling. That's welcome, but it's unclear if there's enough push behind it to force action.
Frankly, all the talk might fall flat as quickly as an opened Coke bottle in the fridge. Bottle recycling has been challenged for years, and previous attempts at bridging the stalemates have not worked. But these are all good signs of renewed attention.
From our perspective, a key step would be for BPEC to come forward from its work with specific ideas it could support that would significantly boost recycling, something akin to doubling the recycling rate for plastic bottles in a decade.
Plastic bottle makers know it's in their best interest for the container recycling rate to rise. They just need a plan that's acceptable to their customers.
The film industry finds itself in a different position, similar to where bottle recycling was 30 years ago. Only very small amounts of film and bags are recycled, about 5 percent by some estimates.
Governments are trying to force more recycling. California has threatened taxes, and it is beginning negotiations with the film industry to design voluntary systems to recover and recycle more.
Bag makers hear that and want to work cooperatively, not stand in the way.
It remains to be seen whether there can be a true meeting of the minds for both bags and bottles, but given the challenging economic situation manufacturing finds itself in, such a cooperative approach, with real effort from industry and real compromise from government, could be the best solution.