To celebrate Plastics News' 20th anniversary in 2009, we continue with our weekly countdown of the Top 20 issues of lasting impact, as reported in our pages. The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
The series will end with the No. 1 issue in our 20th Anniversary special edition March 16.
No. 11: The recycling saga
When plastics recycling burst on the scene 20 years ago, it was filled with controversy, optimism and skepticism and the industry faced an image problem — not unlike today.
Battles raged over what the industry could do to boost collection and increase recycling. The development of a resin identification code to facilitate recycling was marked by outcries from the beverage industry and others that the chasing arrows symbol would lead consumers to think that recycling markets existed for all plastic.
Soft drink and consumer goods companies set goals, many still not achieved, for recycled content in bottles and containers. Recyclers were concerned then, as now, about contaminating PET and high density polyethylene recycling streams with other plastics. Today, the new contamination concern is bioplastics.
The biggest obstacles to more plastics recycling remain what they were 20 years ago: unwillingness to invest in collection, the lack of a better framework to capture materials, and an up-and-down market for recycled resins. It remains a market that rises or falls with virgin resin prices because customers won't commit to using recycled content.
PepsiCo Inc., for example, has met its target for 10 percent recycled PET in its bottles only occasionally; and Coca-Cola Co., after hitting its target of 10 percent recycled content in 2004 and 2005 — years after its original target date — today is using just over 3 percent recycled content in its bottles. Long forgotten are their once-stated plans to make bottles with 25 percent recycled content.
Both firms, along with the beverage industry, have fought bottle-deposit laws even though PET recycling rates in the 11 states with such laws are near 80 percent — compared with a nationwide rate of 25 percent.
Along the way, there have been successes and failures.
The Center for Plastics Recycling Research — which at one time had a $1 million research program and 18 full-time staff members, was disbanded in 1996 and folded into part of Rutgers University, ironically, shortly after CPRR developed a way to use waste plastics for railroad ties.
The highly touted, industry-funded National Polystyrene Recycling Co. in the late 1980s started with a flourish and great promises, but failed to spur increased PS recycling and closed in less than five years, causing manufacturers of takeout packaging to shy away from recycled content in their products.
A 15-year effort by Recycling Professionals Inc. to recycle PS from schools in the Portland, Ore., area shut its doors in June, because industry never mustered enough support to create a closed-loop system for PS takeout packaging.
Plastic shopping bag recycling today is minimal, though California has been mandating plastic bag recycling at large grocers since July 1, 2007, and a similar law takes effect Jan. 1 in New York. Only recently did one bag maker, Command Packaging in Vernon, Calif., set up a recycling center at its manufacturing plant and begin collecting pallet wrap and scrap from area businesses, with a goal of having recycled content in 50 percent of its product line by 2010.
Now the plastics industry is facing strong legislative interest in California and elsewhere in bag bans and fees. Meanwhile, the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va., has helped fund roughly 600 recycling bins for state beaches.
Mike Verespej is a
Mike Verespej is aPlastics News staff reporter based in Washington.