(Jan. 12, 4:05 p.m. EST) — A friend who recently relocated from Los Angeles to Tokyo called a few days ago, surprisingly, about plastics.
It seems the trash she put out was not accepted by the waste management company because it wasn't “properly categorized.”
“Can you believe that you need to actually sort out different types of plastics?” she asked.
What? Isn't placing old magazines and paper packaging into a separate recycling tray good enough?
But the Japanese are beyond the minimal-sorting practices of the States. To recycle a water bottle, for example, the PET body, the high density polyethylene cap and the biaxially oriented polypropylene sleeve each go into different recycling bins.
Maybe the difference in cultures helps to explain why the recycling rate for PET bottles in the United States has been at around 20 percent for the past eight years, down from 39.7 percent in 1995.
My colleague, Plastics News' resin pricing reporter Frank Esposito, has a hard time making sense of the low U.S. recycling rate, since the prices of virgin resins have surged in the past few years.
Meanwhile, about two-fifths of the 1.17 billion pounds of PET bottles collected in the States in 2005 were shipped outside of the country to plastics-craving manufacturing powerhouses like China.
Unlike Japan, China has not established specific regulations for recycling. Besides, as Westerners have come to realize, rule enforcement is difficult in China. Still, the recycling rate for PET bottles in China is a whopping 80-plus percent, even higher than the rates in Japan and in Western Europe.
How does China manage to achieve that? It is not the central planning and governmental intervention that Western scholars use to distinguish China from other emerging economies. On the contrary, it is the free market and capitalism.
There is a special profession in China that you don't see so much in the United States. There are hundreds of thousands of junkmen who dig out and pick up every piece of plastic they find from trash cans and waste dumps and sell to recyclers.
China's expanding demand for plastics fuels the recycling sector. Even with all of the internal recycling and importation of recycled PET, China's recyclers need more material. For instance, only 50 percent of the country's polyester fiber capacity is utilized, down from 90 percent in 2000. And prices for recycled PET flake have doubled since 2001, according to Chinese trade journals.
Meanwhile, recyclers in China are facing another problem. Last year, the European Union imposed anti-dumping duties on Chinese exports of polyester fibers, and the United States may follow suit.
So, there could be a dilemma: If China's fiber makers are hurt by the duties, what will that mean to the already-slumping PET recycling rates in the United States? The two markets are global, not local, and are reasonably interlinked, because China's polyester fiber manufacturers use recycled PET to make their product.
Back to the core topic: Published sources say Japan's PET recycling rate is about 60 percent, much of which is exported to China. The rate is 40 percent in France, and more than 50 percent for the European Union as a whole.
Being the world's largest consumer of plastics, with regard to absolute as well as per capita consumption, the United States needs to catch up with the rest of the world in recycling.
Nina Ying Sun is an Akron, Ohio-based staff reporter and Asia specialist for
Nina Ying Sun is an Akron, Ohio-based staff reporter and Asia specialist forPlastics News.