The recycling rate for PET bottles in the United States increased in 2005 for the second year in a row, reaching its highest level since 1999, according to a report from the National Association of PET Container Resources and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
But the 1.5 percentage point gain was miniscule compared with the 9.4 growth in the use of PET resin, making the gap between what's recycled and what's not even wider.
The amount of PET resin collected and sold for recycling in the U.S. was 1.17 billion pounds, compared with just over 1 billion in 2005, or an increase of 167 million pounds. But the amount of PET resin for bottles that was not recycled increased from 3.634 billion pounds to 3.905 billion - or by 271 million pounds.
And even though the recycling rate of 23.1 percent is just 0.6 of a point lower than in 1999, the amount of PET that was recycled last year was only 399 million pounds higher than in 1999, while the amount of unrecycled PET in 2005 was 1.426 billion pounds higher than in 1999.
``Sales are climbing sharply and recycling is climbing slowly and not keeping up with the dramatic sales growth in the industry,'' said Jenny Gitliz, research director for the Washington-based Container Recycling Institute.
The report was the first time that Arlington, Va.-based APR and Sonoma, Calif.-based NAPCOR had teamed on the recycling numbers, with the American Plastics Council in Arlington bowing out of the collaborative effort. The report did not break out recycling numbers for soft drink bottles and water bottles. In 2004, the recycling rate was 34 percent for PET soft drink bottles, and 15 percent for other PET containers, according to CRI.
``We are excited and encouraged about the second consecutive increase in the recycling rate and the 17 percent increase in the amount of material collected in 2005,'' said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR.
``It is good to see a second consecutive increase in the PET recycling rate, even though it is a small one,'' agreed Pat Franklin, CRI executive director. ``But it is still far below what it was in 1995,'' when it reached nearly 40 percent. ``At this rate, it will take us 17 years to reach the rate we were at then.''
NAPCOR and APR attributed the increase to more collections in California, additional sales, more automated sorting equipment and new commercial recovery efforts - partially influenced by 30 consecutive months of PET bale pricing at 10 cents per pound or higher. Prices in 2005, for example, fluctuated between 17-25 cents per pound for nondeposit PET bottle bales picked up in truckload quantities at the seller's dock, they said. Chinese buyers paid in excess of 20 cents per pound throughout the year.
But there is concern about how recycling efforts would be affected if Chinese buyers pulled out of the market. Exporters, many of them from China, purchased 448 million pounds, or almost 38.3 percent, all recycled PET in 2005, and 41 million pounds estimated to be part of mixed bales exported from the United States.
``The continued increase in materials going offshore is the specter that hangs over the industry,'' said one source. ``It is something we have to watch.'' Wellman Inc.'s closure of a 200 million-pound-per-year-capacity PET recycling plant reduces U.S. PET recycling capacity to just over 700 million pounds. ``If the Chinese stopped buying, there would not be enough reclamation capacity in the U.S.''
More than half of all recycled PET is used by fiber converters, with strapping, the second-largest market, at 15 percent. Use of recycled PET to make food and beverage containers declined almost 9 percent and only accounts for 13.3 percent of recycled PET.