There are several long-tem signs that bode well for increased collection of plastics for reclaimers.
Event recycling at professional and major college sporting events, as well as at NASCAR races, is now the norm, not the exception. Coca-Cola Co. has provided schools, communities and other organizations in 225 cities with 11,000 recycling bins since the fall of 2007.
In addition, Coke last month donated $500,000 to help start a long-term recycling project on the National Mall in Washington.
But the troubled economy and the downturn in prices for recycling commodities most notably paper are creating a financial crunch for municipalities and materials recovery facilities that is causing some short-term problems.
The problem with plastics collection is not the plastics market, but the terrible paper market, said Scott Saunders, general manager of KW Plastics Recycling in Troy, Ala. The inability of MRFs to ship and sell paper is preventing them from processing plastics.
Tamsin Ettefagh, vice president of Envision Plastics Inc. in Reidsville, N.C., agreed. If paper bags bog down, everything bogs down because they account for 70 percent of the revenue of many MRFs. But right now, it is too expensive for some MRFs to recycle, so material is going to landfills.
Some MRFs are charging processing fees to handle commodities like paper. When those fees are higher than the cost to landfill the material, cash-strapped cities may scale back or discontinue recycling programs, or stop collecting certain plastics, said Scott Mouw, North Carolina's recycling director.
Without this downturn, I think cities would be moving a lot faster to remove more material, add more types of material to their collection efforts, and capture it for sale. But all of that has gone into hibernation, Mouw said.
People who were ready to make investments to push recovery higher have had to take a step back, even on simple initiatives such as switching from bins to carts.
Switching from recycling bins to carts typically leads to a significant increase in the amount of material collected. But carts cost between $45 and $50, compared with $7-$8 for bins, Mouw said.
If we were in fair shape, I think you would see communities moving to carts because it makes collection more efficient and increases the amount of material by as much as 50 percent. But now we have to wait a year or so for communities to make those changes.
Saunders of KW Plastics said there is plenty of interest in collection and recycling, but he does not expect to see recycling programs expand until the economy improves.
Steve Alexander, director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers in Washington, is encouraged by what he sees happening on the collection side. There seems to be more of a focus on plastic recycling and on education of the public. We can reclaim anything if it is collected and separated out.
But he's not satisfied. There is other material out there that needs to be collected, he said. There needs to be a focus on what to do with plastics others than high density polyethylene and PET, which account for 99 percent of all post-consumer bottles that are collected, he added.
Anne Johnson, director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in Charlottesville, Va., agreed.
We have to look at how we can improve recovery of packaging overall in the U.S., not just the recovery of individual products or resins, and how we can help support further implementation of a better recycling infrastructure and technology, she said at a plastics recycling conference earlier this year.
Sustainability has moved from being an environmental issue to an issue of fundamental business strategy, she said. We need investments in things that change the equation and recycling is one of those things.
To help move that forward, APR formed a working group earlier this year to conduct a market analysis of how much rigid material is out there and to look, for example, at the amount of polypropylene bottles and margarine tubs that could be collected.
The industry now sees the benefits of recovering material at a higher rate, Mouw said.
In addition, some individual companies have stepped up with their own recycling initiatives:
* Recycline Inc., a consumer products manufacturer in Waltham, Mass., that makes all its products out of PP, began a limited nationwide program in January to collect PP containers at 76 Whole Foods supermarkets. The other partners in the program are the Organic Valley Family of Farms cooperative and organic yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farms in Londonderry, N.H.
* Stonyfield has an additional partnership with Honest Tea and TerraCycle Inc. that began in 2007. Their program enables schools, churches and community groups to recycle yogurt containers, 20-ounce plastic beverage bottles, drink pouches and snack food wrappers.
* Since April 2008, cosmetics company Aveda Corp. has been collecting and recycling PP bottle caps at its salons and stores.
Mouw said he is encouraged by the efforts of manufacturers and communities.
I think that is going to be a continuing trend, he said. And that is positive.