Like a lot of people who pay attention to container recycling, Scott Mouw is frustrated.
As chief of North Carolina's state recycling office, he said he sees companies throughout his state clamoring for more material. He sees prices for the recycled plastic going way up, as energy costs and demand have pushed virgin plastic sky high.
And yet, he said, bottle recycling is stalled out. Governments, industry and environmentalists fight over different solutions. Cities complain they don't have the money to promote their recycling programs, environmentalists and industry are locked in fights over bottle bills and companies are scrambling for material.
``We're not happy with where we are, with the status quo,'' said Mouw. ``We have a number of recyclers in the state who tell us they are poised to grow, but can't get the supply. ... We have this wonderful plastics recycling infrastructure in North Carolina that is starving for material.''
So far, nothing has emerged to feed that infrastructure. There have been a few high-profile political initiatives, like the Connecticut Senate passing a bottle bill expansion last month and the Illinois lieutenant governor proposing deposits.
The chief trade group for the plastic bottle recycling industry, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, hired a new top executive last month and plans to start talking up the issue of how communities can strengthen existing recycling programs. It also plans to question government about whether it makes sense to export so much waste plastic.
``There is too much material being collected from tax funds of local citizens and being exported to China,'' said Scott Saunders, an APR leader and an executive at high density polyethylene recycler KW Plastics Inc. in Troy, Ala.
``There have been issues before us for a while and we have been a little anemic in getting the message out there,'' he said.
Some quieter work has been going on as well. The Environmental Protection Agency is convening a national dialogue on container recycling, and, in what may be the most anticipated development, a group of beverage industry giants that have spent the last two years in self-imposed exile studying recycling are preparing to start talking publicly.
The beverage effort is the first time that alcoholic and nonalcoholic companies - Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., Anheuser Busch Co., Miller Brewing Co., Heineken, Coors Brewing Co. and bottled water giant Nestle AG - have come together to look at recycling. They've been meeting behind closed doors, as the Beverage Packaging Environmental Council.
Of course, there's no guarantee all that effort will be able to dent the problem. No one seems to have a ready solution to two of the main challenges: the politically charged debate about container deposits, and how to get communities to invest more in bottle recycling, something even the lure of much higher prices for waste plastic has not convinced them to do.
The beverage industry group, BPEC, is finishing up the research phase of its work and has said little to date, in part, participants said, to avoid raising expectations.
BPEC will probably start meeting with stakeholders, including governments and its supply chain, in the fall, said Kate Krebs, the executive director of the National Recycling Coalition. Washington-based NRC has been acting as facilitator, and designated spokeswoman for BPEC.
Scott Vitters, BPEC chairman and senior environmental manager with Coca-Cola in Atlanta, said the group wants to push the debate into new, unspecified areas and is looking at how new beverage consumption habits, like drinking more beverages away from home, hurt recycling.
``Over the last decade or so, there have been a number of folks doing work, but they have been looking in the rearview mirror for ideas and solutions,'' Vitters said. ``What became evident to a number of us, from the standpoint of post-consumer behavior, is that we need some new ideas and new solutions.''
Whatever BPEC's plans, state officials would like to see something significant.
``We've had a leveling or a decline in recycling. ... It's clearly been an issue of concern, not just with beverage containers but with packaging in general,'' said Garth Hickle, the product stewardship team leader with the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. ``It's curious to me that we're looking at record commodity prices, and yet it's not had any impact in spurring collection.''
Minnesota and North Carolina were among several states that formed a joint recycling task force a few years ago, but, Hickle said, they put that on hold because of shrinking state budgets, a desire to see what BPEC would come up with, and the rise of issues like electronic waste.
Hickle said BPEC needs to look at some broad producer responsibility model, similar to what the electronics, carpet and paint industries are considering, or something like product stewardship efforts in Canada or Australia.
``We look at Canada and we see a different attitude in the industry up there, more of a willingness to sit down and take part in solutions,'' said Mouw. ``We're mystified why we don't see that in the United States.''
In the United States, overall plastic bottle recycling rates have held flat in the low 20 percent range, while rates for PET bottles have dropped from 40 percent a decade ago to under 20 percent now, as the packaging material has gotten more popular but recycling has not kept pace.
Both Mouw and Hickle said they wanted to move debate away from what they see as the polarizing topic of container deposits, which industry hates and environmental groups like, and said the market conditions offer a chance to boost recycling in a sustainable way.
Hickle said states have not been able or willing to make the kind of investments needed in recycling infrastructure, although he said they still spend substantial sums. And industry officials like Vitters, for their part, said that companies spend a lot making sure their packaging is recyclable and using recycled PET in their bottles.
One idea getting some attention by groups like NRC is rebranding, finding new ways to market recycling to consumers by tying it to positive messages like job growth or energy independence.
Advocates of bottle bills said they, too, offer a solution. They argue that deposit states recycle a lot more, 60-80 percent of containers, than nondeposit states, which typically recycle 20 percent or less.
Pat Franklin, executive director of the pro-bottle bill Container Recycling Institute in Arlington, Va., said that the larger problem is that the public doesn't see that recycling is in trouble, so doesn't ask government for solutions.
``You really wonder when there's going to be enough pressure and where it's going to come from to make lawmakers do something radical to turn recycling around,'' she said.
Franklin is worried that BPEC amounts to a stalling tactic on the part of beverage companies, because she said the industry lobbies against bottle bills without offering solutions. She was part of a failed dialogue between industry, environmental groups and Coke several years ago that sought to break the logjam over recycling.
BPEC participants dismiss the notion that they're stalling. Vitters said it's taken time to get participants to develop trust in their competitors sitting around the BPEC table, and NRC's Krebs said she's seen serious effort in her involvement with BPEC.
``It's a deep dive once and for all to really look at beverage container recycling, but not miss the point that beverage containers are only part of what goes in the bin,'' Krebs said. NRC has identified container recycling as a key issue since December 2002, when its board called on industry and government to come up with plans to substantially increase recycling within three years.
``NRC's credibility is utmost and we wouldn't be involved with something that didn't have a lot of honesty and integrity,'' she said.
Assuming good intentions, Minnesota's Hickle said it still could be tough to duplicate the dialogues in carpets and electronics in the container recycling arena.