WASHINGTON (Oct. 10, 9:40 a.m. ET) — The impact of lightweighting — while positive from a sustainability standpoint — continues to have a dampening effort on plastic bottle recycling.
“Lightweighting meets economic and sustainability goals [and is] more economically sustainable, but in the short-term, it is not good if you are running a recycling business,” said David Cornell, technical director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.
Exacerbating that trend is that per person consumption of plastic bottles has flattened, he said.
“The long-term trend on consumption of plastic bottles/person does not show growth,” said Cornell. “It is back at 2004 levels and less than it was before the 2008 recession. And I don't think we're going to see growth for awhile.”
That was reflected in the amount of plastic bottles recycled in 2011. Although the total number of pounds of plastic bottles increased 45 million pounds to a record 2.624 billion, the individual numbers paint a starker picture.
The amount of PET bottles recycled increased by 47 million pounds — or just 1.7 percent — in 2011 and the amount of high density polyethylene bottles declined by slightly more than 10 million pounds, according to data in the post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report released Oct. 10 by the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council and APR.
In addition, the five-year compounded annual growth rate for plastic bottles is just 3.4 percent. PET and HDPE account for 98.2 percent of all plastic bottles recycled with polypropylene bottles accounting for another 1.7 percent.
"2011 was a stagnant year for postconsumer plastic bottle recycling, resulting in little change in the collection recycling rate,” said the report, with the all-bottle recycling rate inching up one-tenth of one percentage point to 28.9 percent, the PET rate increasing by two-tenths of a percentage point to 29.3 percent and the HDPE rate staying flat at 29.9 percent.
“We are seeing a continuation of lightweighting bottles, which hurts the pounds,” Cornell said in a phone interview. “There are more units, but we are not moving as many pounds as we would like.
Both HDPE and PET reclaimers are benefiting, however, from less material going to export.
“Exports of both PET and HDPE recycled bales decreased substantially, with sales to Asia down,” the report said. Roughly 43 percent of recycled PET and 17.6 percent of recycled HDPE was exported—both down from previous years.
“The big news is that export buyers are down and that's expected to continue in the near-term — for at least the next few years,” Cornell said. “The Chinese economy has gone into a slowdown like other economies and they are no longer [importing] unwashed material.”
Because of the increasing North American demand, domestic companies now have more ability to pay higher prices and “were more effective” competing for baled plastics, Cornell said.
But while that has helped recyclers get more material, some of those gains have been countered by lower bale yields. Yields averaged just under 80 percent for HDPE recyclers and anywhere from 65-75 percent PET recyclers, reducing the amount of good quality material available.
“Contamination is a continuing issue,” Cornell said. “The more material people seek, the more they end up collecting things they don't want.” And that's compounded further for PET recyclers by a growth in full-wrap bottle labels and pressure-sensitive labels on thermoform packages that reduce yields.
“Packagers need to understand how their decisions aren't friendly to recyclers and the industry needs to have a clear voice and message they can send to packaging companies,” said Cornell, who has helped developed the Design for Recycling Guidelines on the APR website.
But possibly the biggest challenge facing the industry is the shortage of supply which has led to low capacity utilization, with PET reclaimers at a capacity utilization rate of 67 percent and HDPE reclaimers at a capacity utilization of 80 percent.
A number in the mid-to-upper 80s—if not 90 percent—is typically the target, said Cornell. “That's on the low side of where they need to be.”
The biggest trouble spot is in PET where capacity is currently 1.755 billion pounds — which is 10 percent more than 1.6 billion pounds of PET collected in 2011 — 43 percent of which went to export markets, leaving only 916 million pounds for the U.S. market.
“Folks who invest the dollars need to understand that their raw material source is not unlimited,” said Cornell. “Some will have a rude awakening. The capacity utilization issue is a huge one.”
Cornell does not expect a massive change in the amount of bottle material recycled or the recycling rate for bottles. “We'd have to have a substantial change in the collection mindset,” he said. “And I don't see any drumbeat for that.”
But he is encouraged by the bulky rigid plastic pilot programs at grocery stores that could lead to increased collection of those materials, and the initiatives to recycle thermoformed PET packaging.
“There about 1 billion pounds of PET that go into thermoform packaging,” Cornell said. “That is a growth area for collection” that only just reached the radar screen in 2011, with 24.9 million pounds collected in PET thermoform bales. “My guess is that we'll see major PET recyclers go after thermoforms.”
And he sees bulky rigids in the backrooms of supermarkets doing for PP what soda did for PET recycling years ago.
“It is high-grade, clean material and an assured supply — and there is a lot of it,” Cornell said. APR has estimated that 354 million pounds of bulky rigids — divided nearly equally between PP and HDPE — are used annually by medium to large grocers.
“There will be a continued growth in the supply of this material at grocers and they would like to make it a revenue stream instead of a cost,” Cornell said. “The world of PP recycling is looking better.”
The all-bottle report estimated that 43.8 million pounds of post-consumer PP was collected and recycled in 2011 compared to 35.4 million in 2010.
“The interest in recycling bulky rigids and tubs in grocery stores continues to grow,” he said. “It's a win-win for grocery stores and for recyclers.”