Breaking away from pressure exerted by major bottlers that are members of its association, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers now supports legislation to increase plastic container recycling.
APR represents 90 percent of the plastic bottle recycling capacity in North America.
In announcing its support of a number of legislative initiatives last week, the Washington recycling group chose not to endorse additional bottle-deposit laws. Instead, APR will support recycled-content legislation, landfill bans and the expansion of existing bottle-deposit laws to include other plastic containers; and, it also will oppose the repeal of existing bottle-deposit laws.
``This is a huge, huge step. It is really gutsy,'' said Pat Franklin, head of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington and an advocate of deposit laws. She said APR is the first industry association to support bottle-deposit bills in any way.
``They are going to make Coke and Pepsi furious by doing this. But push had come to shove and they needed more materials to grow their business. It was either sit in the frying pan and fry, or jump in the fire and take their chances,'' Franklin said.
As an APR member and national procurement director for the PET recycling plant of Mohawk Industries Inc. in Summerville, Ga., Phil Gavin had this to say: ``For years, we tried to appease every group and bottling organization. But our No. 1 feedstock is recycled bottles and we are starving for materials.
``Without bottles, we can't survive. If the positions we are taking don't make some of our members happy, that's too bad.''
Affiliate APR members that may not be too happy with the group's position include Coca-Cola Co. of Atlanta and PepsiCo of Purchase, N.Y.
Gavin said he and other APR members were tired of the downward spiral that dropped PET recycling rates from 37 percent to less than 20 percent before last year's modest upturn, which coincided with recycling legislation adopted in California and New York City.
Mohawk buys one-third, or more than 3 billion, of all the plastic bottles collected in the U.S., grinding them into chips that are melted and extruded into fiber for carpeting.
``Over the last 10 to 11 years when we were quiet and let others speak, it didn't help at all,'' said Scott Saunders, director of raw material procurement and sales at KW Plastics in Troy, Ala. - the nation's largest recycler and biggest user of recycled high density polyethylene. ``The industry is hungry to talk about supply,'' he said. ``No one was asking APR about supply, recycling or legislation.
``Regardless of your political position - or whether you think recycling legislation is fair - if we are going to address the issue of supply, we have to look at the real numbers,'' Saunders said.
Those numbers suggest legislative initiatives increase recycling rates, he said. States with bottle-deposit laws have PET bottle recycling rates of 60-90 percent, compared with a nationwide average of less than 22 percent, according to CRI data.
``We have to look at what [these initiatives] can do to the amount of materials available,'' Saunders said.
Because of a shortage of material, PET recyclers are operating at 67 percent of capacity and HDPE recyclers are operating at 70 percent, according to the American Plastics Council of Arlington, Va. Franklin said APR's stance will help advance the expansion of bottle bills to include all containers.
``Having business people say here is something that helps my business is certainly going to help,'' she said. ``This is really going to put wind into the sails of the expansion effort.''
In explaining why APR decided not to support additional bottle-deposit legislation at this time, APR director Steve Alexander said the association simply wanted to focus on where it thinks it ``can make a difference for all members.''
He added that new bottle-deposit laws are ``the Civil War of the recycling issues.'' Only one bottle-deposit bill has been adopted in the past 20 years, although three of the 11 states with deposit laws have expanded them to include all containers, not just soft drinks.
``We want to add a new perspective and broaden the discussion to move the debate forward, so it is not a discussion of who is for or against recycling - but on enhancing supply, collection programs and collection infrastructure,'' said Alexander.
But he added that the positions APR adopted ``are just the initial look at this. It is an evolving process.''
He also said APR would not be in the forefront leading legislative efforts, but would offer position papers and information to ``elevate the discussion to what's achievable and what's economically feasible.''
Saunders agreed: ``It is up to each state to decide what they need to do. As a recycler, we just have to say that if you choose this route [as to how you will increase recycling], this is the result we can see.''