Plastics recyclers in North America have capacity to handle more material, and some are taking steps to help boost container collection.
``This is clear supply-demand economics,'' said Scott Mouw, chief recycling officer for the state of North Carolina. ``You are going to pay through the nose because 80 percent of the bottles and containers are thrown away, and that restricts supply.''
One potential solution is to implement more all-bottle collection programs. Today 2,075 cities have implemented all-bottle recycling, up 28 percent in the last four years, according to the Washington-based American Chemistry Council.
But the problem goes deeper than that. ``Municipal budgets are under incredible strain,'' said Steve Alexander, executive director of the National Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington.
APR is making a push to educate more communities about the value of recycling through regional workshops and live Internet discussions.
APR also has made what Alexander called a ``modest'' financial commitment to the Curbside Value Partnership of Washington, a 2-year-old effort by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute to boost curbside collection, develop industry data, share best practices and increase recovery rates at material recovery facilities.
``You can't go into communities alone,'' Alexander said. ``You need to be working with people who already have programs in place. It is much easier to get more material out of the communities that already have established programs.''
CVP program director Steve Thompson said there is ``a tremendous upside potential in helping these curbside residential programs improve. The top 100 programs account for 80 percent of the recycling flow.''
He pointed out those programs cover only half of the U.S. population, and only 50 percent of the people who can participate do.
But the key to recycling improvement still rests with municipalities that run the programs and getting people to recycle more.
``There is a great need for us to work with communities because there is often a lack of understanding of plastics recycling,'' Alexander said. ``People who run municipal programs continue to have questions about what is and what is not recyclable, are there markets for material, what is the value of the material and how can they enhance the value of the material.''
Another collection issue is the challenge of collecting bottles discarded away from home.
``The recycling infrastructure is less than we would like it to be,'' said Mouw of North Carolina. ``There is PET all over soccer and baseball fields because the recycling opportunities there are not prevalent. We need communities to step up and serve those venues. I would like to see product companies be partners and be heavily invested in that effort.''
Deposit legislation is another possible solution. APR took the controversial stance last year that it would support bottle-deposit bill expansions, but not new bottle bill laws - even though states with bottle bills have return rates of between 60 and 75 percent - far higher than the 23.1 percent recycling rate nationwide for PET.
``APR has a neutral stance,'' said Jean Bina, supply chain manager for Phoenix Technologies International LLC in Bowling Green, Ohio. ``But it is obvious that in states where there is deposit legislation, there are huge amounts of material coming back. A lot of people don't want to hear it, but when you get paid money to take it back, it works.'' Incentives also seem to be the best form of increasing recycling, she said.
Four states - Oregon, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York - still have active initiatives this year to expand bottle bills to include noncarbonated beverage bottles, mostly water, with Oregon considered the most likely state to make a change.
Another challenge to collecting more plastic is to convince consumers to participate.
``You have to change the mentality of the communities, the state government and the people,'' said Steve Babinchak, plant manager of St. Jude Polymer Co. in Frackville, Pa. ``But that is not easy. I'm not sure enough people across the country understand the importance of recycling.''
John Calhoun, one of the two co-owners and partners of Custom Polymers Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., said the recycling rate has gone up slightly the past two years. ``But the recycling rate in this country used to be near 40 percent,'' he said. He attributes part of that decline to growth in single-serve and water bottles.
``It goes back to educating folks, getting people at the grass-roots level to support recycling programs in these communities, and educating people about how to run programs better and to know the value of the materials,'' he said. ``A lot of folks are committed to using recycled content in their packaging. Wal-Mart is going through a big initiative to have recycled content in their packaging.
``But there are not enough materials. As a nation, we have to be committed to keeping materials out of landfills.''
Dennis Sabourin, executive director of the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., believes, ultimately, the corporate social responsibility trend that has spread from Europe to Canada offers more promise as a solution.
``By shifting toward a producer-responsibility model,'' he said, ``the cost is spread throughout the industry and among consumers, and it could lead to increased recycling.''