(May 22, 2006) — Plastics recycling is pretty much about supply and demand. But the caveat there is that consumer behavior has a big impact too, and too many are not pulling their share.
Recyclers of post-consumer plastics have been clamoring for more material for years. In this week's special report, we quote one expert who says U.S. recyclers would like to have 2 billion to 2.5 billion pounds of PET annually. That's twice as much as the 1 billion pounds they're getting now.
They could also take another 500 million pounds of high density polyethylene. They're already handling about 1 billion pounds.
From a supply-and-demand point of view, this is good news. You want demand to be healthy. That way, “waste” PET and HDPE collected by municipalities will not be thrown away. Heavy demand also encourages more communities to collect plastics.
Another plus: We're seeing some creative new models for getting more plastics, including a variety of film and a larger share of the “custom” bottles sector — meaning not just the usual suspects, gallon-sized milk jugs and 2-liter soda bottles.
Further down the demand side of the equation, we see new enthusiasm from processors to use recycled resins. The Gulf Coast hurricanes played a role there, as well as virgin resin prices that are, in some cases, double what they were in 1999.
But plastics recyclers aren't fat and happy. They need some help, because consumers still aren't on the plastics recycling bandwagon.
This part of the story makes no sense. Just about everyone thinks green these days — everyone you meet is an environmentalist, right? But many are throwing away too much plastic.
The old ways of collecting plastics, via curbside and drop-off programs, aren't getting enough. The most effective solution — paying for bottles via deposit programs — isn't growing because of opposition from grocers and soft drink bottlers.
It has long been our position to support a national bottle-deposit system, since existing state programs have proved effective in collecting a clean, valuable recycling stream.
Many in the plastics industry agree with our position, although they're reluctant to vocally support the idea since their customers don't feel the same way.
In the absence of a national deposit, or significant additions to new state programs, the plastics and waste industries need to find a new solution to this problem. We need something that will encourage the public to do a much better job at recycling — and we need it soon.
The Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers last week considered a set of legislative initiatives that could help.
One source said ideas include opposing the repeal of deposit bills, supporting the expansion of bottle bills to include other containers, supporting landfill bans and encouraging recycled content legislation.
This could prove controversial — and processors might not like some of the options. We think both processors and recyclers need to cooperate to solve this problem, because boosting recycling rates is in the best interest of both groups.