The demand for recycled plastics has never been higher. But even the 1 billion pounds of PET plastic bottles and 1 billion pounds of high density polyethylene containers recycled annually in the U.S., based on 2004 data, are not enough.
It's also just a fraction of what the market could be, as another 3.6 billion pounds of PET bottles are not recycled and a lot of recycled plastic heads toward export markets in China.
``We think the unrestricted demand for PET could be 2 [billion] to 2.5 billion pounds,'' said Dave Cornell, technical director for the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington. ``The industry also could use another 500 million pounds of HDPE, if it could get it.''
``The main issue is the lack of supply,'' said Judith Dunbar, director of environmental and technical issues for the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va. ``There is a lot of domestic competition, and the export market is competing for that tight supply as well,'' with estimates that in PET bottles alone, one-third of recycled bottles are shipped overseas. As a result, PET recyclers are operating at just 67 percent capacity and HDPE recyclers at 70 percent, she said.
``There has been a decline of between 3-4 percent in the amount of material available to recyclers since 2001,'' said Scott Saunders, director of raw material procurement and sales at KW Plastics in Troy, Ala. ``And prices have gone up 100 percent in the past 24 months. The market could grow 100-200 percent without affecting the downstream market's ability to absorb that material.
``We have customers who would like to buy more material from us, and it's not available, and we have potential new customers who want material, but the supply has been stagnant. No recycling company can grow without an increase of supply. And supply is determined by the amount of tons you can bring into your facility,'' Saunders said.
But even if all the plastic containers exported were diverted back to the U.S., that would be just an incremental gain. And, if recycling rates rebounded to their near 40 percent level of the mid-1990s, that would help but still leave more than 60 percent of plastic containers unrecycled and disposed of in one fashion or another.
``We are holding back the growth of companies in North Carolina'' and across the U.S. ``because we throw bottles in landfills,'' said Scott Mouw, chief recycling officer for North Carolina. ``Everyone is pleased with the progress we have made, but no one is happy with where we are,'' in terms of the performance of recycling programs, the amount of materials available and the extent of diversion initiatives to date, he said.
PET bottle recycling is a good example. Recycling rates reached a peak of 37.5 percent in 1994 but then steadily declined, dropping below 20 percent, before rebounding slightly to 21.6 percent in 2004, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif.
In 2004, the amount of recycled plastic bottles by weight, slightly more than 1 billion pounds, was less than the amount discarded in 1994. And the amount of plastic bottles discarded in 2004, by weight, was 3.62 billion - or 3½ times the 1.07 billion pounds discarded in 1994, NAPCOR said.
The recycling decline isn't unique to plastic, as almost all recycled products have been on a similar trend. ``The recycling rates for plastic, glass and aluminum have all declined,'' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington.
As Garth Hickle, team leader for the Product Stewardship Team in the Minnesota Office of Environment Assistance, explained: ``The cost of disposal is relatively inexpensive in the United States. Recycling is just another household activity in everyone's busy schedule, which makes it hard for it to be a priority, and companies are not providing enough opportunities for consumers to recycle when they are away from home.''
Yet working to find a better way to recycle plastics or solutions to the supply shortage has long been a contentious issue, with each vested interest typically pushing its own agenda instead of working together.
But some in the industry are hopeful that economics - that is, the high cost of oil, changes in recycling methods, and some promising initiatives to encourage more recycling - could bring more supply to the market.
``There has never been a greater opportunity, from an economic standpoint, to focus and increase recycling,'' North Carolina's Mouw said. ``We stand on the edge of being able to do much more recovery in a more efficient way.''
Mouw points to the growth of single-stream recycling that allows all recycled goods to be collected at the same time, the growth of automatic, optical sorting equipment at materials recovery facilities and more interest in single-bottle collection systems for plastics, rather than collection by plastic type.
``In an atmosphere of $70 per barrel for oil, more recycling should be a no-brainer,'' said Dennis Sabourin, NAPCOR executive director. ``Individually and together, we have to look at innovative ways of increasing the recycling stream of materials.
``We expect to see increased recycling because of the growing system of single-stream recycling coupled with automatic sortation,'' Sabourin said.
APC's Dunbar agreed: ``Single-stream recycling is becoming the big thing and has a lot of potential to capture ... about 10-20 percent more out of the waste stream.''
In addition, a number of private and government recycling initiatives have Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of sales and purchasing in the Reidsville, N.C., office of Envision Plastics Inc. of Pomona, Calif., feeling encouraged.
She said reverse vending machines and the Recycle Bank program are helpful for away-from-home recycling. Reverse vending machines allow people to return recyclables for incentive coupons from merchandisers; at Recycle Bank, recyclables are placed in a single box for pickup and consumers receive RB dollars to spend at participating merchants.
She also points to pay-as-you-throw programs in more than 6,000 cities where consumers are charged by weight or bag to dispose waste. There is no cost to dispose recyclable materials, thus creating an incentive for consumers to separate out those materials.
``Pay-as-you-throw programs tend to have a 50 percent recycling recovery rate vs. a national average of 25 percent,'' Ettefagh said.
She said making recycling simpler for consumers is the key, pointing to all-bottle programs as an example. ``If you tell consumers that it is all plastic bottles,'' they don't have to check the bottom of the container for the number coding that identifies the type of plastic.
``If you can say to the consumer, don't worry, just put it all in one bag, that will increase participation,'' Sabourin said.
In addition to private sector and municipality initiatives, government mandates are moving forward in an effort to reduce waste. Yet they are bitterly opposed by many. For example, the two main soft drink companies, PepsiCo of Purchase, N.Y., and Coca-Cola Co. of Atlanta, spend millions of dollars annually to fight bottle-deposit bills, which exist in only 11 states. Since 1986, only one has passed, in Hawaii. And only three of the states - California, Maine and Hawaii - extend their bottle-deposit laws to all containers, as opposed to just soft drinks.