Forgive Pat Franklin if she paints a grim picture.
But after spending nearly two decades championing plastics recycling, fighting litter and creating an endless number of statistics to show just how many plastic, aluminum and glass bottles wind up in landfills and not recycled, she wonders where things are headed next.
``We have a very sophisticated and well-positioned recycling infrastructure, but what we are lacking is an adequate collection system and that is the fly in the ointment,'' said Franklin, who stepped down last month as executive director of the Container Recycling Institute in Washington, a nonprofit organization she founded 16 years ago.
``It is not like the cities aren't trying to boost the recycling rate and to boost curbside recycling, but the bottom line is, who is going to pay for it?'' she asked. ``We should have more recycling bins in airports, but what we have now is woefully inadequate and someone has to cover the cost of that as well.''
And even where there are recycling containers, she is not convinced they are as effective as they could be. ``It doesn't take too many bottles to fill up even the large containers, and if you ever peek in, there are more than bottles in there,'' Franklin said.
``I look inside recycling bins at the beach and find paper wrappers, gum wrappers and polystyrene cups, so you end up with bins that can't hold all the bottles that need to be recycled and materials that still have to be separated,'' she said. ``Once these bins are picked up, I would like to know how many bottles are really recycled. I imagine a lot of it ends up going right into the trash and not getting recycled.''
There are also a sizable number of plastic bottles that adhere to paper ``that get into someone else's recycling stream and end up discarded,'' she said, pointing to Oregon where environmental officials found that 3.4 million pounds - or 20 percent of the plastics containers collected at material recovery facilities in the state in 2005 - did not get recycled.
That inability to get collection right frustrates her because ``the markets for recycling are there. We have got these recycling industries going,'' said Franklin. ``But we are not providing them with the feedstock they need.'' And even though the overall bottle and container recycling rate has increased 2.8 percentage points in the last two years, she is quick to point out the recycling rate in 2005 was still just two-thirds of what it was in 1994 when it stood at 37.5 percent.
Franklin suggested the two major reasons for the decline are the enormous growth in PET beverage bottle sales, particularly noncarbonated drinks such as water, and a decline in redemption rates in the 11 bottle bill states to 70 percent from 85 percent.
``Curbside recycling is increasing in those states, so a lot of people have chosen that option,'' Franklin said. ``But it keeps the bottles out of traditional recycling bins and there is a large amount of contamination in recycling streams.'' In addition, value of the deposit returned to the consumer - typically a nickel - is ``worth less and doesn't provide as much an incentive to recycling,'' she said.
The other dilemma for recycling is that many PET beverage bottles are consumed away from home.
``Water bottle drinks are typically consumed away from home and away from traditional recycling centers, and sales of these products have mushroomed,'' she said. In addition, plastic water bottle sales in 2005 at 29.8 billion, eclipsed soft drink bottle sales for the first time.
That presents a second problem because of the enormous difference in the recycling rates for soft drink bottles and water bottles. In 2004, the last time the National Association for PET Container Resources made the distinction between soft drink and water bottle recycling rates, the recycling rate for soft drink bottles was 33.7 percent - more than twice the 14 percent recycling rate for water bottles. ``You can see clearly the difference that deposits can have on recycling rates,'' Franklin said.
In addition, more and more beverage containers are consumed in smaller sizes, increasing the number of bottles thrown away. In 2005, she points out, Americans spent $270 billion more - an increase in spending of 29 percent from 2002 - to buy the same volume of beverages that they had consumed three years ago (excluding milk). That's a spending increase equal to three times the growth in the Consumer Price Index.
``The growth in smaller, more easily transportable bottles is huge,'' said Franklin, noting that sales of plastic water bottles in 1-liter and smaller sizes increased more than 100 percent in that same time frame. According to CRI data, Americans purchased 21 billion more containers in 2005 than in 2002, with more than 90 percent of the increase attributable to noncarbonated beverages.
``Without more updated bottle bills to increase noncarbonated- beverage bottle recycling, it is going to be a very long time before we make any progress on PET bottle recycling. We are spending more for the same amount of beverages, but the beverages are packaged in more containers because of the smaller plastic bottles for soft drinks and water.''
But what Franklin understands least is the reluctance of beverage companies, in particular PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co., to change the recycling equation.
``The beverage industry is reaping huge profits from selling products in throwaway containers,'' she said. ``They should be willing to assume some responsibility and be willing to participate in erasing the trend of growing can and bottle waste.''
Four years ago, the Beverage Packaging Environmental Council, a coalition of major beverage producers, agreed to set targets for recycling containers, but that has yet to materialize.
``They need to pay more than lip service to recycling and stop fighting container deposits,'' said Franklin. ``All of that lip service is window dressing. If they really cared about the environment and their environmental impact, they would embrace this system and work with politicians and communities to improve it. Deposit systems have proven to be two to three times more effective than any other recycling system for bottles. Imagine how low the recycling rate would be if we didn't have those 11 states.''
She admits deposit systems compete with curbside recycling, but she says ``curbside recycling, drop-off centers, bins in airports and parks, buy-back centers and deposit systems all compete against each other.''
``Why not have all these things work together and maximize what is collected and give the recyclers the feedstock that they have been crying for?'' she said. ``The recycling industry can recycle as much as we can give them.''