Fewer post-consumer PET containers were recycled in 2016 in the United States than the previous year, both in terms of percentage and actual tonnage recovered.
New statistics from the National Association for PET Container Resources and the Association of Plastic Recyclers show the recycling rate dropped to 28.4 percent in 2016 from 30.1 in 2015.
And the actual mass of post-consumer PET containers recycled fell by 44 million pounds from 2015 to 2016, and that's on top of a 15 million pound drop from the year before.
As executive director of the APR, Steve Alexander sees several factors driving down the numbers.
“Increased contamination, low oil prices and export market implications really have created a perfect storm,” he said. “But the increased contamination, in my estimation, is the biggest problem we're facing. And it's one people can control the quickest.”
Add to the mix the changes in packaging that can lead to more difficulty separating different resin types, and Alexander said there must be changes in how America handles this segment of the plastic recycling business.
All of this comes at a time when PET packaging is as popular as ever.
“There's more material out there. We've got such a dynamic packaging industry that's changing faster than a lot of collection programs can keep up with and a lot of infrastructure programs can keep up with,” he said. “You look at packaging, there's so many more different types, and that means more contamination in the market place.”
In other words, this is not your grandmother's PET bottle. With changes in shrink sleeve use and different adhesives, for example, it is becoming more of a challenge to separate PET bottles from the recycling stream, he said.
PET bale yields these days are typically around 60 percent, Alexander said, with the remaining material considered waste by those who handle the material.
Alexander's APR represents plastic reprocessors, the people who actually recycle resins after they are collected and sorted, often by waste management firms, after consumer use.
He said he believes there should be changes downstream, closer to the consumer, to provide plastic reprocessors a cleaner stream that would boost recovery rates.
“I think we have to look at this whole thing in a different way. The same old business model is not going to work in these times of limited export markets, low commodity prices, etc.,” he said. “We're looking at a sorting protocol that we can work with the MRFs [material recovery facilities that sort recyclables] to try to capture more material that's in the system today.”
But MRF technology often is not designed to handle these more sophisticated packaging designs, causing material to be sent out the back end of these facilities as garbage.
And MRFs, thanks to low recycled resin commodity pricing, are in an economic pinch as well. The shale oil and gas boom has been great for consumers by driving down gasoline and home heating prices, but it's also driven down virgin resin prices.
Recycled resin historically has discounted its pricing to virgin and has seen profitability drop in recent years for both plastic recyclers and the MRFs feed them material.
“I think we're at a key point here where the export market has exacerbated the situation where we really need to make the infrastructure improvements to collect and separate the material to keep up with the dynamic types of packaging we have today. We're asking an infrastructure that is based on a 30-year-old model to keep up and separate out material today that is so dramatically different than it was in the 1980s,” Alexander said.
The new report shows the overall tonnage of PET bottles collected dropped in 2016 for the second consecutive year. Recyclers collected 1.753 billion pounds of PET bottles last year in the United States, down from 1.797 billion in 2015, and an all-time high of 1.812 billion pounds in 2014. The decline in total collection volumes was 2.4 percent, or 44 million pounds.
“This was a strong year for PET bottle growth, but another difficult year for the PET recycling industry,” said Tom Busard, chairman of NAPCOR, in a statement. “The challenges we saw in 2015 — low virgin resin pricing and uncertain demand in both recycled scrap and [recycled] PET end markets — continue to impact the industry in 2016.”
The popularity of PET bottles continued to climb in 2016, with 6.172 billion pounds of containers being put into the market. That's up from 5.971 billion in 2015 and 5.849 in 2014.
The recycling rate has not been this low since 2009, when that number was 28 percent. But because of the continued increase in PET bottle popularity over the years, the total number of pounds of bottles collected was lower at 1.444 billion pounds that year. There also were about 1 billion fewer pounds of PET bottles on U.S. store shelves that year at 5.149 billion pounds.
Despite similar recycling rates — 28 percent in 2009 vs. 28.4 percent in 2016 — the 2016 PET bottle recycling weight total was about 300 million pounds more than what was collected in 2009.
Kate Eagles is program director for NAPCOR and offered a couple of potential factors causing the lower numbers.
Declining soft drink sales, an important source for post-consumer PET bottles, particularly in bottle bill states, is a “likely” factor.
Also the lower bale pricing for PET could be causing some “attrition in commercial collection” as haulers might not be able to cover their costs.
“It's not a huge drop in collection this year, but we attribute that combined decline of 44 million pound to these two categories,” she said.
But while the overall numbers have fallen, Eagles pointed out that the amount of PET bottles handled by domestic reclaimers increased by about 1 million pounds from 2015 to 2016.
“Many PET reclaimers report that 2016 was one of the most challenging years, in terms of processing, operations and margins, since the birth of the industry in the 1980s,” the report states. “Tight margins, driven down by low virgin resin prices, put significant pressure on PET reclaimers and not all were able to withstand it.”
At the beginning of 2016, the report indicated there were 28 PET reclamation plants with a total of 2.495 billion pounds of capacity. By the end of the year, those numbers had dropped to 21 plants with combined capacity of 2.08 billion pounds.
Capacity utilization rose from 62 percent at the end of 2015 to 73 percent by the end of 2016, the report stated.