After staying flat for two years, the volume of PET bottles recycled in the U.S. increased by 113 million pounds in 2010, pushing the recycling rate close to 30 percent for the first time since 1996.
2010 marks the seventh straight year the rate has risen, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources in Sonoma, Calif., which released its post-consumer PET container recycling report Oct. 12. Also last year, the amount of recycled PET used in manufacturing increased by 7 percent and broke the 1 billion-pound level for the first time, at 1.002 billion pounds. That's nearly 43 percent more recycled PET than was used in manufacturing in 2001, NAPCOR said.
The 2010 PET bottle recycling rate — 29.1 percent — is up from a low of 19.6 percent in 2003 and just 2.6 points shy of the 1996 rate of 31.7 percent.
NAPCOR credits expanded bottle-deposit programs in Oregon, Connecticut and New York for almost half of the increase in the total volume of PET bottles recycled — 1.56 billion pounds, up from 1.44 in 2009. “If we hadn't had the expansions in those three bottle deposit states, reclaimers would have had a rough time,” said the group's technical director, Mike Schedler.
PET recycling also got a boost from higher sales, as the PET bottle market, in units, recovered to 2008 levels, NAPCOR said.
“The negative growth in PET bottles and jars sold in the U.S. ended [in 2010] with a rebound more robust than many anticipated,” said the report. “All beverage categories posted positive growth with juice, juice drinks, and ready-to-drink tea leading the way with double-digit increases. Carbonated beverages also saw growth before tailing off during the last two months of the year.”
The amount of PET collected and recycled in 2010 exceeded the annual nameplate PET recycling capacity in the United States — an estimated 1.47 billion pounds at the end of 2010. But there's still a wide gap between nameplate capacity and available material, as slightly more than 50 percent of the PET collected was exported, leaving U.S. reclaimers with an available domestic supply of just 776 million pounds.
And that supply shortage is likely to get even more pronounced moving into 2011, as both Custom Polymers PET LLC in Athens, Ala., and CarbonLite Industries LLC in Riverside, Calif., have added 100 million-pound PET wash lines in the past five months.
What's more, CarbonLite plans to add a second 100 million-pound-per-year line in either 2012 or 2013, and it is likely that Clear Path Recycling LLC will move forward sooner rather than later with its second 120 million-pound PET wash line in Fayetteville, N.C., which originally was scheduled to come on stream this year.
“We are going to have more reclamation capacity than [pounds of] bottles collected,” Schedler said of 2011.
But that's not deterring investments in PET reclamation capacity, according to NAPCOR, which reports that those investments are being driven by the short supply of recycled PET flake and pellets.
“This has prompted end users that anticipate a long-term need for RPET supply to either quietly back new merchant reclaimers, or to do it themselves on the premise that they have a better chance of procuring and processing bales than they do chasing supply of merchant flake,” the report said.
And while purchases of recycled PET by China have stayed virtually the same, the new domestic capacity is creating a new dynamic in the PET bale market, the association said.
“Where Chinese buyers drove prices on the West Coast, domestic buyers were the price setters on the East Coast” — triggered by the need to procure material for the substantial new investments companies made in new and existing plants, the report states.
“Wellman, NURCC and Clear Path took material away that had in the past been bought by China,” Schedler said. “They will continue to be aggressive.” Schedler also said he believes the CarbonLite plant in California — which began producing its first recycled PET this month — will affect West Coast PET sales.
“I think what you are beginning to see is that [the U.S.] can compete with China more favorably” in purchasing PET bales because of the new plants and the growing RPET demand, he said.
The continued capacity expansions, despite the RPET supply shortage, reflect growing use and demand, said the NAPCOR report.
Fiber applications still remain the biggest user of recycled PET, accounting for 38 percent of demand. But there has been significant growth in the past two years in the sheet market for packaging, and in food and beverage bottles.
Some 216 million pounds of recycled PET was used in food and beverage bottles in 2010, up from 141 million pounds in 2008. Demand from film and sheet applications more than doubled from 2006-08 to 153 million pounds, and it now stands at 195 million pounds.
“This overhanging demand has created a dynamic that is both interesting and troubling,” the report said. RPET demand stemming from the recycled-content commitments of brand owners, in addition to all other RPET applications, both current and projected, would require the PET bottle recycling rate to be at least 48 percent by 2013, according to the report.
“Up to this point,” NAPCOR continued, “the primary concerns of this industry — collection, design for recycling principles, and the use of recycled content — have been addressed voluntarily and inconsistently. The question is whether that sort of approach can support the current infrastructure and allow for the growth that will be necessary to make this a sustainable industry.”
The industry's all-bottle plastics recycling rate report — which includes high density polyethylene, the second most recycled plastic — was also released this week, by the Washington-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
This is the sixth year that NAPCOR, APR and the New York-based PET Resin Association have partnered to produce the annual PET recycling report. Data was generated internally at NAPCOR, Petra and the International Bottled Water Association, as well as from surveys conducted by HDR Inc. and Moore Recycling Associates.