U.S. trends in high density polyethylene recycling aren't very promising, based on the latest post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report.
The report shows a declining recycling rate, a significant increase in both pounds and percentage of HDPE headed to export markets, and less material available to U.S reclaimers.
The annual report, unveiled in late February at the Plastics Recycling conference in Jacksonville, Fla., is sponsored by the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington.
``Many reclaimers are compensating for losing domestic volume by buying [material] from other countries,'' such as Spain, Poland, Mexico and Costa Rica, ``and bringing it here,'' said Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics in Reidsville, N.C.
The net result is that HDPE recyclers in the United States have excess capacity.
``The increase in export demand for PET and HDPE reclaimers exceeded the increase in supply of bottles, leaving less material available for the North American plastics recycling industry,'' the report said. ``The growth in domestic supply of baled bottles is insufficient to keep the U.S. plastics reclaimers' plants full.''
The report gives data for 2006, the most recent available.
HDPE recyclers' capacity utilization fell from 69 percent in 2005 to 66 percent in 2006, as the amount of material available to be reprocessed shrank by 18 million pounds to 741.7 million pounds, even as washing capacity was rising by 20 million pounds.
Other troubling factors underscored by the report include:
* A record 186.4 million pounds of HDPE were exported - up 14.8 percent from 2005 and up 28.6 percent from 2004, when 145 million pounds were exported. That means 20.1 percent of all HDPE collected in the U.S. is now headed to export markets.
* The HDPE recycling rate, which had risen by 1.2 percentage points in 2005, dipped 0.7 of a point in 2006 to 26.4 percent.
* In addition, the volume of HDPE in pounds collected in 2006 increased a miniscule 0.0068 percent, yet volume of HDPE not recycled increased by nearly 4 percent to 2.58 billion pounds. That is better than three times the amount of HDPE that is available to North American reclaimers.
``If we could, we would outlaw all recyclables from going into landfills,'' said Arthur Ferguson, the former general manager and now a consultant to KW Plastics, an HDPE and polypropylene reclaimer in Troy, Ala. ``We have talked to people in Washington, D.C., about it, but they don't want to hear about it.''
The discouraging recycling numbers come at a time when manufacturers are lightening the weight of bottles and the size of HDPE containers for household detergents is shrinking in half because of a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dictate that detergent makers sell their products as concentrates.
``That is problematic for everyone,'' Ferguson said.
``Light-weighting ... is a relentless force in bottle making,'' the report added.
``We are definitely seeing a drop in demand due to bottle shifts, reductions due to concentrates, as well as a decline in pipe demand and flower pots due to housing and construction dropping,'' said one HDPE reclaimer. ``If we were not experiencing a green movement, the demand would be even worse than it is.''
An additional survey of 16 HDPE recyclers by Moore Recycling Associates Inc. of Sonoma, Calif., does not indicate a great deal of optimism among HDPE reclaimers, even though 82 percent said they had budgeted for future plant improvements or an expansion.
In that survey, 60 percent said 2007 was a ``hard year,'' and 53 percent said bale quality diminished year over year, with most HDPE recyclers reporting that yields were the same or down from 2006.
Two-thirds of the HDPE reclaimers said their operating margins in 2007 were down in comparison to previous years, and 50 percent said market conditions were worse.
The ACC/APR report also gives recycling data for other plastics, including 2006 statistics for PET, previously were released in October by APR and the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif.
HDPE and PET bottles accounted for almost 96 percent of the plastic bottle market and 99.1 percent of the pounds of plastic bottles recycled in 2006, the report said. The seven largest HDPE bottle reclaimers recycled 81 percent of the HDPE in North America, it said.
In 2006, the total pounds of plastic bottles recycled increased by less than 1 percent - by 118 million pounds - to a record 2.22 billion pounds, the report said. By contrast, the amount of unrecycled plastic bottles increased by more than 8 percent, from 6.56 billion pounds to 7.1 billion pounds.
The ACC/APR report estimated that 18.4 million pounds of polypropylene were recycled in 2006, up from 10.1 million in 2005. It estimated that 800,000 pounds of PVC and 300,000 pounds of low density PE were recycled, both with recycling rates of less than 1 percent.
For the second straight year, the report did not include data for linear LDPE, or for polystyrene bottles.