The numbers are the numbers, but there's an important story behind the numbers, as far as Kate Eagles is concerned.
Sure, recycling of post-consumer PET bottles jumped by 80 million pounds in the United States last year to a new record. And the recycling rate increased modestly to 31.2 percent.
But Eagles, program director at the National Association of PET Container Resources, points to the increasing infrastructure and demand for recycled bottles as important trends in this corner of the plastics recycling industry.
“I think it's too easy to focus on the rate,” she said.
So let's focus on the numbers before we don't.
A new report from NAPCOR and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers shows that 1.798 billion pounds of post-consumer PET containers were recycled last year.
That includes 1.329 billion pounds purchased by domestic reclaimers, another 456 million pounds sent to export markets, and 12.5 million pounds sent abroad as part of mixed resin bales, the groups said.
The 80 million-pound increase pushed the PET bottle recycling rate up 0.4 percent from a 2012 mark of 30.8 percent.
Both the amount of PET bottles available for recycling, 5.764 billion pounds, and the amount actually recycled — the 1.798 billion pound figure — increased in 2013. That resulted in the slight increase in the recycling rate.
And, now, here's the back story that Eagles believes is so important.
“This is a viable, growing industry that's really processing some material and using it domestically and I think that is a good story to tell,” she said.
“I'm hoping that the supply increases to meet some of that demand because it's a nice closed-loop story that we can tell domestically. But we need to keep working on supply. There's more out there that we need to capture,” Eagles said.
Reclaimers already have the ability to handle more material as a total of 27 PET recycling plants had 2.2 billion pounds of capacity as of the end of last year. That's up from just over 2 billion pounds at the beginning of last year. The utilization rate for these recycling plants was 72 percent last year.
And just as capacity is growing in the PET bottle reclamation business, so is demand for the finished product. The report indicates demand for recycled PET is strong for all major end-use markets.
But while reclaimers are thirsty for supply, they also are having continued difficulties with what the report calls “crisis-level contamination, particularly in bales of PET generated in curbside programs.”
That contamination is due to increasing levels of non-PET material and non-recyclable packaging in bales, the two trade groups said.
“Despite very real challenges for PET recyclers due to limited supply and decreasing bale yields, this report shows a maturing, entrepreneurial industry that continues to innovate and find new material sources and process efficiencies,” said APR Chairman Scott Saunders in a statement.
“Notably, domestic recyclers are contributing more than 790 million pounds of material back into U.S. production of new PET packaging. This is a significant demonstration of domestic closed loop manufacturing,” added Saunders, who is general manager of KW Plastics Recycling Division.
The report, “Postconsumer PET Container Recycling Activity in 2013,” is available at http://www.napcor.com/pdf/NAPCOR_2013RateReport-FINAL.pdf.