Dissecting whether the latest numbers on plastic bottle recycling represent progress is difficult to gauge for several reasons.
First, the actual number of high density polyethylene pounds recycled increased by less than 18 million pounds - just a tick over 1 percentage point - to 921.9 million pounds between 2004 and 2005, according to data released Feb. 5 by the Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) in Washington and the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va.
Combined with the PET recycling numbers released in November by APR and the National Association of PET Container Resources, that pushed the pounds of bottles recycled to 2.1 billion, the first time that threshold has been crossed. PET and HDPE account for more than 95 percent of the bottle market and 99.6 percent of the pounds of plastic bottles recycled.
``That sounds like a lot until you consider that the total amount of pounds not recycled was 6.56 billion pounds,'' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington. ``We trashed three times as many bottles as we recycled.''
Franklin also cautioned that much of the increase can be traced to increased collection efforts in California, where the PET bottle recycling rate increased to 46 percent in 2005 from 34.5 percent the year before, and the HDPE bottle recycling rate increased to 51 percent from 46.5 percent.
And while the nationwide recycling rate for HDPE bottles increased by 1.2 percentage points to 27.1 percent in 2005, the report suggests that the pounds of resin sales, as submitted by the industry, might have been higher than reported - which would mean a recycling rate lower than calculated.
``The actual pounds used for HDPE bottle production in 2005 may be somewhat higher than reported,'' said the report, because blow molders responded to temporary HDPE plant shutdowns caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita by ``drawing down inventories and making up domestic resin shortfalls with imported HDPE material. Rather than guess about the quantitative impact of the above events, the data was left as reported by industry sources.''
What's more, even with the slight increase in HDPE bottle recycling, the amount of HDPE bottles that weren't recycled - 2.58 billion pounds - remained more than two and one-half times higher than the amount of pounds recycled.
In addition, the amount of recycled HDPE bottles sent overseas continued to increase, leaving less material available for North American plastics recyclers.
``It is exacerbating, the supply pressure faced by North American HDPE reclaimers,'' who have been in a ``supply-limited situation since 1996,'' said the report.
``Recyclers are happy to see that the bottle recycling rate for HDPE continues to grow,'' said APR executive director Steve Alexander in a phone interview Feb. 8. ``But the growth in the export market continues to concern us because the export numbers continue to outpace the growth in the collection of bottles.''
Some 162.4 million pounds of HDPE - or 17.6 percent of the amount collected for recycling - were exported for recycling in other countries in 2005, up from 145 million pounds and 16 percent in 2004.
``The industry could use more material. Industry capacity continues to be underutilized,'' said Alexander. HDPE capacity utilization was 72 percent in 2005, up from 70 percent in 2004, said the report.
``The markets are there. We simply don't have the programs in place to deliver'' recycled materials to reclaimers, CRI's Franklin said.
``You always have to be encouraged by increased recovery and by increased recycling rates,'' Franklin said. ``But we have to keep in mind that the rates are far below what they were 10 years ago. It's almost ridiculous.''
At the current rate of increase, she said, it would take until 2010 for rates to be at the levels they were in 1993.
The ACC/APR report did not include data for PVC, low or linear low density PE, or polystyrene bottles, as it has in the past, stating that ``the production and recycling quantities of bottles manufactured from these resins are relatively small.''