When the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers decided to back the expansion of bottle-deposit bills, landfill bans and recycled content legislation a month ago, it was viewed by many as a bold move because of the contentious political nature of the issue.
But APR executive director Steve Alexander said the decision is simply an attempt to address the recycling sector's most critical issue - supply.
He added that the association, which represents 90 percent of the plastic bottle recycling capacity in North America, isn't going to take sides on legislative mandates, but rather will be a resource of information.
``The larger concern of our members at this juncture is the availability of supply,'' Alexander said in an interview at NPE 2006 in Chicago. ``This is an industry with some very good end-user markets that can make money if it has the material it can recycle. But we need a more stable supply of raw materials.
``As an industry, we have the capacity to recycle twice the amount of plastics'' currently available, he said.
APR's involvement in legislative issues is a natural evolution for the association, which depended on the American Plastics Council for financial help until late 2004, he said.
``This organization has only been on its own for 18 months,'' Alexander said. ``It is worried about sustainability, resources and its financial future. It is important for APR to be recognized as the voice of plastic recyclers. Ours is the voice that needs to be heard, and it is imperative that people begin to realize that there is an association dedicated to plastic recycling and they look to us as a resource.''
Legislative involvement will be only part of the more visible APR, Alexander said.
APR and the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., have received preliminary notification of approval for a three-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to design a series of templates that different public venues can use to develop recycling programs. He said word on final approval should arrive by the end of July.
``We need to improve collection away from the home,'' at venues such as concert halls, sporting events, street fairs and convention centers.
``We need a series of templates because the economics of recycling are different, depending on whether there are eight football games or 81 baseball games,'' Alexander said.
He pointed to promising efforts that he feels can be duplicated. Among them: the recycling effort at NPE that this year recycled more than 500,000 pounds of plastics, and the approach used at Chicago White Sox baseball games, where there are collection baskets at every entrance and exit and where ushers pass collection bags to fans in the seventh inning, which has led to a recycling rate of more than 50 percent.
Alexander said APR also intends to be a technical resource to communities, to help them increase recycling levels, and a source for legislators looking for ways to increase recycling or reduce litter.
``We don't want so much to influence policy, but ... we can provide information on what can be recycled and how. We need to make people understand that recycling is the livelihood of our members and that recyclers depend upon materials to survive.
``We have to become part of the debate,'' but let municipalities, state governments and legislators decide on the right course of action, Alexander said. ``We can add a great deal of technical data and advice on how to improve the quality and amount of supply.''
He said APR plans to implement a communication program to educate the public about the value of recycled materials and extend that message to the next generation of recyclers: school-age children.
``We have a huge problem with communications to the consumer on what to do with plastics and what should be recycled and why. We somehow have to modify behavior so that people with a plastic bottle in their hand see that there is a value in it.
``Consumer education has to be one of our core focuses going forward,'' he said.
``I don't think people know that it has great value,'' in end products such as recycled plastic lumber, fiber for carpets and the like. ``They think that recycled plastics go into low-value uses.''
He pointed to the RecycleBank in Philadelphia as an example of an economic message that holds resonance with the public, as people are given RecycleBank dollars, which can be exchanged for merchandise, when they put items in recycling bins set up at major retailers and grocers.``That is the type of things that change behavior,'' he said.
Alexander said APR has encouraged representatives of Weekly Reader children's magazine to include recycling messages so the value of recycling is ingrained in children at an early age. ``We have to start at the ground up.''
He also said the industry believes that its best bet for increasing supply is to work with the ``established infrastructure'' for collecting recycled materials in the U.S., which has been hurt by municipal budget restraints in recent years.
``It makes more sense to work with the imbedded infrastructure than to try and re-create what we already have. We are trying to work with them on how to enhance collection programs,'' Alexander said.
``We believe that with a little bit of education and more enhancements of the system, you can collect more materials'' than are collected in typical set-ups that often require consumers to separate materials and take them to a collection location.
He said APR is redesigning its Web site to provide businesses and consumers with tips on how to recycle plastics. He also said APR now is conducting quarterly Web-based seminars on plastics recycling and is putting on three to four regional workshops each year to explain to communities the economics of plastics recycling, what recyclers are looking for, end markets for recycled plastics and how to increase the value of what they collect.