Coca-Cola Co. tends to have a big impact on the packaging market, especially in PET.
So when Plastics News staff reporter Mike Verespej broke the story April 18 that Coke's joint venture had suspended operations at its food-grade PET recycling plant, the news rocked the plastics recycling world.
* This is going to have a big impact on plastics recyclers.
Short term, the plant closing may be good news for competing recyclers. PET bale prices, which have been rising, should stabilize, and more material will be available. It's been a tough market in recent years, with plenty of competition from recyclers in China.
But if the plant, in Spartanburg, S.C., is having trouble making material that's suitable for today's generation of source-reduced soft drink bottles, then other recyclers could have similar problems. What does that mean for the future of bottle-to-bottle recycling?
I've never considered bottle-to-bottle a critical goal. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with using recycled PET in fiber and strapping.
But critics may jump on the issue. And if the bottle-to-bottle market suffers, recyclers will lose a chance to sell resin for a premium.
* This could be evidence of a fundamental problem with how plastics are collected for recycling in the U.S.
Sources say the plant, known as NURRC LLC, has seen deteriorating quality in the bales of bottles it buys. Other recyclers have the same problem. Quality is sliding because so many bottles come from curbside programs. Many communities intentionally collect just about any plastic container imaginable, because they've found that if they collect all bottles, or all containers, they get more PET and high density polyethylene bottles.
Could the problems at NURRC indicate recyclers aren't ready for “all-bottle” collection? If so, expect more pressure to expand container-deposit programs, which are a proven success story.
* Will recycling start to take a back seat to bio-based materials?
Coke is making a big push into bio-based materials this year. The company has said it expects to convert all of its PET packaging to PlantBottle materials — made from sugar-cane ethanol — by 2020.
We could be headed for a debate on the merits of recycled vs. bio-based content in plastics packaging. If so, there will be winners and losers — and I doubt Coke will be on the losing side.
* Finally, some historical perspective. This story gave me a feeling of déjà vu this week. I couldn't help but remember the 1990s, when Coke made a high-profile commitment to use recycled PET in its bottles, but then quietly let it slide.
The Spartanburg plant was a big part of Coke's latest promise, to use 10 percent recycled content in its PET bottles by last year and 25 percent by 2015. Coke didn't meet the 2010 goal, and it says the goal for 2015 is to source 25 percent of its PET from recycled and/or renewable materials.
I think this is a setback for PET recycling, but not the end. Coke isn't giving up on recycling. Soft drink companies will still be pressured to recycle their containers, so it is in their own interest to keep the market healthy.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”