The impact of lightweighting — while positive from a sustainability standpoint — continues to have a dampening effort on plastic bottle recycling in the U.S.
“Lightweighting meets economic and sustainability goals … 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 U.S. per-capita consumption of plastic bottles has flattened out, he said.
“The long-term trend on consumption of plastic bottles per 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.”
Although the total number of pounds of post-consumer plastic bottles collected for recycling in the U.S. increased 45 million pounds to a record 2.62 billion in 2011 vs. 2010, the overall recycling rate rose just one-tenth of a percentage point.
That is according to data in the U.S. post-consumer plastics bottle recycling report released Oct. 10 by APR and the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council, both based in Washington.
The report also put the five-year compounded annual growth rate for all plastic bottles at just 3.4 percent.
“2011 was a stagnant year for post-consumer plastic bottle recycling, resulting in little change in the collection recycling rate,” the report said, with the PET bottle rate inching up slightly and the rate for high density polyethylene bottles staying flat.
“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.”
However, HDPE and PET reclaimers are benefiting from less post-consumer material being exported.
“Exports of both PET and HDPE recycled bales decreased substantially, with sales to Asia down,” the report said.
“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 North American demand is on the rise, domestic companies were able to pay higher prices and “were more effective” competing for baled plastics, Cornell said.
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.”
Cornell, who helped develop the Design for Recycling Guidelines on APR's website, said the industry needs to let packagers know how their packaging decisions affect recycling yields.
But possibly the industry's biggest challenge is the supply shortage, which has led to low capacity utilization, with PET reclaimers using just 67 percent and HDPE reclaimers 80 percent of available capacity in 2011.
“That's on the low side of where they need to be,” Cornell said. The target rate is at least mid-to-upper 80s, he said.
The biggest trouble spot is PET, where about 43 percent of material collected for recycling in 2011 went to export markets, mainly China. Although the report points out that is “significantly less” than in 2010, it is still significant.
“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. “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 bulky rigid-plastic pilot programs at grocery stores that could lead to greater collection of those materials, and by initiatives to recycle thermoformed PET packaging.
“There about 1 billion pounds of PET that go into thermoform packaging,” Cornell said. That material only just reached the radar screen in 2011, with 24.9 million pounds collected in PET thermoform bales.
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,” he said. APR has estimated that 354 million pounds of bulky rigids, divided almost 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 report estimated that 43.8 million pounds of post-consumer PP was collected and recycled in 2011 vs. 35.4 million in 2010.