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September 2004

Plastic Bottle Recycling Rate Slumps, Hitting Manufacturers
by Brian R. Hook

A drop in the plastic bottle recycling rate has hit the bottom line at manufacturers like Mohawk Industries Inc, based in Calhoun, Georgia. Mohawk manufacturers and sells flooring products and it uses reclaimed plastic bottles for some of its carpeting products.

“Supply and demand is out of whack. Things are really tough,” said Phil Cavin, national procurement director at Mohawk. He said that prices for reclaimed plastic bottles were about 10 cents a pound a year ago. Since then he has watched as prices have more than doubled.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers are commonly used to package soft drinks, water, juice, peanut butter, salad dressings and oil, cosmetics and household cleaners. Manufacturers like to use PET to package products because of its strength and transparency.

Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) can be used to make many new products, including fiber for polyester carpet, fabric for clothes, fiberfill for winter coats and automotive parts, such as luggage racks and bumpers. Plus RPET can be used to make new PET containers.

The PET recycling rate in the United States dropped from 22.1 percent in 2001 to 19.9 percent in 2002 according to the most recent report by the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). The latest rate is half the rate of 39.7 percent achieved in 1995. PET recycling declined from 834 million pounds in 2001 to 797 million pounds in 2002.

NAPCOR is a trade association that represents resin producers, PET recyclers, beverage brand owners, including Coca-Cola Co., headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia and PepsiCo Inc. in Purchase, New York and companies that manufacture or purchase PET bottles, including Proctor & Gamble Co. based in Cincinnati, Ohio. NAPCOR is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Rates have hit the wall,” said Mike Schedler, vice president of technology at NAPCOR. “Recycling in general is back peddling a bit.” He blamed a lack of national, state and regional leadership. He said that the recycling ethic needs to be reinforced in the minds of consumers.

Schedler said that a lot of the PET containers are now sold in single serve containers and are consumed away from home. Therefore, it is often hard for the consumer to find a recycling location for the containers. “They’re not finding their way back into the stream,” Schedler said.

“This downtrend and stagnation of available raw materials supply has really reached a crisis,” said Schedler. He said that it is important that the recycling industry collectively talk about recycling. NAPCOR is not in favor of government sponsored deposit legislation, however. Schedler said that its members have historically not been in favor of such legislation.

There are currently ten states across the country that have bottle deposit legislation on the books, providing an incentive for people to recycle. There are eight states with $.05 deposits. Michigan has a $.10 deposit and California has two different deposit levels, depending on the size of the container. But out of these 10 states, only 2 include non-carbonated beverages.

Research by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a nonprofit, research and public education organization based in Arlington, Virginia, has found that the 10 states with deposit legislation have the highest recycling rates. These states recycle on average 72 to 85 percent of beverages that are eligible compared to a national rate of 37 percent.

This rate includes all beverage containers, including aluminum cans, glasses and plastics combined, according to Jennifer Gitlitz, research director at CRI. Plus she said that the national rate is pulled up by the higher rates in the 10 deposit states. She noted that in Michigan, where there is a $.10 deposit on eligible containers, the recovery rate is 95 percent.

“If these laws were passed in more states and even nationally, then we could be looking at recovery rates for PET in the 80 percent range,” said Gitlitz. This would help the recycling industry fight the dropping recycling rates and provide more bottle scrap to plastic reclaimers.

“The factories that have retooled to use this very specific product now can’t get enough of what they need. The whole industry is on very shaky ground,” said Gitlitz. “It’s a shame that this industry which had really started to take off is now imperiled because the beverage industry is not willing to just accept this public policy solution which has been so successful.”

A lack of deposit laws is not the only thing preventing plastic bottles from being recycled, however. The American Plastics Council (APC) — a trade association for the plastics industry, based in Arlington, Virginia that works with municipalities and other entities to raise the recycling rate — has found that some plastic bottles collected for recycling are being thrown out.

This includes plastic materials at both single stream and dual stream recycling facilities, according to Judith Dunbar, manager for the technical assistance program at APC. “Dual stream means that containers are kept separate from the paper stream during the entire recycling process. Single stream is when paper and containers are collected from the consumer in one bin and separated at the processing facility.” At dual stream recycling facilities, Dunbar said that due to poor management and quality control issues, plastic bottles sometimes get disposed as residue. At single stream facilities, the plastic bottles sometimes get flattened and included with paper bales.

This investigation by APC has just started within the past year, so Dunbar did not have an estimate on the total amount of plastic containers that ends up in the trash. “It’s a large number of bottles. Consequently, in both instances, the bottles don’t get recycled or counted towards recycling even though they were collected for recycling,” said Dunbar.

The APC is working on a number of programs to educate consumers to increase plastic bottle recycling. “We work on a lot of educational programs with various entities, but essentially I think it is going to take a number of different organizations and industries working together to tackle this.” said Dunbar.

Any effort will not come soon enough for those in the plastics recycling industry like Cavin, the procurement director at Mohawk. “We’re going to have to do something,” Cavin said. He said that he is not in support of a bottle bill. But he feels something needs to be done, and soon.

“I’m not exactly sure who that somebody is, but somebody is going to have to step up to the plate and come up with some kind of system,” said Cavin. “It’s just a sad situation when all these things are going into a landfill that have a redeemable value.”

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