Even though recycling rates for rigid plastic containers have dropped below the mandated 25 percent in Oregon, there isn't any immediate threat of enforcement action or sanctions against manufacturers.
But when 2008 rolls around, companies could be forced to switch resins or add more recycled content to the products they sell in the state unless there is solid evidence to suggest that the amount of material recycled will be enough to hit that mandated level.
Oregon officials reported earlier this month that the rate, which had fluctuated between 25 and 30 percent since 1993, dropped below 25 percent in both 2004 and 2005 and that they do not expect 2006 rates - which won't be calculated until the end of this year - to be above 25 percent, either.
The drop in the recycling rate creates several triggers. The state Department of Environmental Quality must explain to the legislature why the recycling rate is down. The state legislature is required to hold hearings on the situation - which could add impetus to the current legislative effort to add non-soft drink bottles to the existing bottle deposit law. Additionally, alternative measures would go into effect in 2008 if the DEQ determines that the recycling rate won't increase.
That is, companies would need to sell products with 25 percent recycled content, switch to a resin that is recycled at a rate of 25 percent or higher or certify that the containers they sell or that they use to package their product contains 10 percent less material than five years ago. Record-keeping and enforcement requirements would also go into effect.
Food containers that do not hold beverages, medical-related packaging and packaging necessary for tamper-resistant seals are exempt from the Oregon law.
Although the threat of penalties and changes are confined to Oregon, the trends that have pushed down the recycling rates of rigid plastic containers in Oregon are happening in other states as well, said Patricia Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc. in Sonoma, Calif.
Among those trends:
* Problems with separating plastics products at materials recycling facilities that operate commingled recycling streams. The DEQ estimated that 18 percent of plastic containers collected are lost during MRF sorting and that 1,700 tons of plastic containers each year end up in paper recycling streams.
* Lower recycling rates for water and juice bottles - a market segment where sales are increasing, and decreased sales of soft drink products which have higher recycling rates, at least in bottle deposit states like Oregon.
* Increased amounts of plastic tubs, tubs, tray and non-bottle containers, which often are not collected in curbside recycling programs.
``Companies ought to be paying attention to the trends in Oregon because they are happening everywhere,'' Moore said. ``The DEQ is producing data to address the issue that no one else in the country is producing. The industry should be looking at the data because DEQ is pointing out trends that are occurring nationwide. They need to be paying attention because it could change how they do business.''
In Oregon, for example, curbside haulers account for 60 percent of the plastics collected, while the state's bottle bill accounts for another 28 percent. What's more, only 4.4 percent of the plastic containers that end up being disposed, usually in landfills, and not recycled are bottles subject to deposit laws. By comparison, between 21.4 percent and 28 percent of no-deposit beverage bottles, non-beverage bottles, tubs, pails, pots and other rigid containers are disposed, not recycled. Together, PET and HDPE containers account for 73 percent of the plastics containers that are disposed. Also, the recycling rate for plastic bottles subject to the deposit law is 70-80 percent compared to 30 percent for water, tea and juice plastic bottles.
What happens next depends on both industry efforts and the discretion of DEQ.
``We are supposed to estimate what legislative changes, improved sorting techniques and changes to municipal recycling programs might produce and project where the rate will be in the future,'' said Peter Spendelow, DEQ's solid waste specialist. ``We are working with business on programs and changes that could lead to increases in recycling. I would prefer that companies do what's needed to get the rate above 25 percent.''
For its part, the Arlington, Va.-based American Chemistry Council has pledged to send an industry consultant to meet indivi- dually with representatives of the six major MRFs in the state to examine process flow and recommend how they might capture more of the plastics in their stream. APC also has committed $30,000 - ``a small amount of money,'' according to Spendelow - to the effort.
``We want to do a major assessment of the MRFs to see where they are losing bottles,'' said Judith Dunbar, director of environmental issues for the plastics division of ACC. ``We want to watch the flow of materials, how it is dumped and how it is collected to see where the big losses are.''
She said thinner and lighter-weight bottles, when flattened, don't sort properly and conveyor lines that are too fast or too short prevent pickers from capturing all the plastic containers.
``I think certainly that a lot of the nondeposit bottles are part of the problem, along with the single-stream collection system.
Yet another factor are details of the final DEQ analysis, because the Oregon law, as written, exempts from regulation any individual resins where the recycling rate is above 25 percent, Moore said.
``The industry is waiting on the resin-specific data,'' said Moore, which, according to preliminary estimates, shows PET - the major resin for soft drink, water and juice bottles - to be in compliance and HDPE, the major resin for many other rigid plastic containers, to be one or two percentage points below the mandatory 25 percent rate.
``If both are exempt, it would be difficult'' to get the industry to move forward to make changes, said Moore. ``The ACC and the MRFs are interested because they want to divert as much plastics as possible from landfills. But container manufacturers and product manufacturers are not yet on board, and if HDPE is exempt, it will be difficult to get the industry's attention, because that just leaves a few minor resin producers that the mandate would affect.''
But, even if HDPE and PET become exempt, Spendelow is optimistic because ``there has been nothing antagonistic'' from industry and because the potential exists to improve the recycling rate in several areas. ``There is a very decent chance that the participants will get the rate up,'' he said.
Spendelow pointed out that a number of the communities in the Portland metropolitan area are looking to add roll carts and to approve the collection of any type of rigid plastics container, not just bottles. In addition, he said adding deposits on plastic water and juice bottles would boost the recycling rate above 30 percent.
The current recycling rate is 70-80 percent for soft drink bottles subject to the deposit and 30 percent for other bottles that have no deposit.
Still, he said business needs to prepare for the eventuality that the rate won't increase.
``They should not be making investments, but they should evaluate the law and see where they stand in relation to it,'' said Spendelow. ``What we recommend is that they do an initial evaluation of how long it will take them to get into compliance.'' The reason? It's unlikely DEQ will be able to give companies more than two months' notice that changes are going into effect.
Business, however, doesn't think it will get to that point.
``There are changes that you can make to MRF collection lines that can help them capture more plastic containers,'' said Moore, whose company will do the assessment work promised DEQ by the ACC. ``We will spend a full day watching their material flow and listening to what their real issues are so that we can make recommendations that they feel comfortable with, and [compile] a wish list of what we would like to see happen. There are a lot of materials put into collection bins that are lost by the MRF.''
She also feels confident that the time is right for curbside recycling to begin to collect not just bottles, but nonbottle plastic containers as well.
``We have been cautious about suggesting the expansion of curbside recycling beyond deposit bottles,'' said Moore. ``But our feeling is that the recycling markets for rigid containers are now strong enough to support their collection and that it is happening for economic reasons - not environmental or policy reasons, so that it is here to stay.
``Industry needs to continue to let the collectors know there is a market for that material and to use it themselves when it is feasible,'' Moore said.
Dunbar shares Moore's optimism, pointing to the potential changes MRFs can make and the increased interest from municipalities in collecting more rigid plastic containers, particularly HDPE.
``All those things ought to be able to easily raise the rate without expanding the bottle bill,'' Dunbar said.
But longer-term, more effort is needed to increase recycling opportunities, Dunbar added.
``We just don't have enough opportunities for people to recycle except through their municipal curbside and drop-off programs,'' said Dunbar. ``We need to find creative ways to get people to recycle and to increase away-from- home collection programs at event venues, airports and anywhere you have a trash can.''