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PET Recycling Declines Again

Total recycling of PET containers declined in 2002, both in percentages and in absolute numbers, to 797 million pounds, bringing the recycling rate to 19.9%. This is its seventh year of decline according to figures released by the National Association for PET Container Resources in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The figures show that U.S. reclaimers purchased 522 million pounds of material, down from a high of 656 million pounds in 1998, and lower than at any time since 1993.

Reclaimers also imported 57 million pounds of material, down from a high of 101 million pounds in 1998. Exports showed a continued upward trend, from a low of 89 million in 1998, to a high of 275 million pounds in 2002.

While there were only 50 U.S. recyclers reporting this year, the survey found at least 135 Asian brokers actively buying scrap for export, despite a technical import restriction in China.

The majority of the material (344 million pounds) goes into fiber applications, with 86 million pounds going into food bottles, and 43 million pounds going to non-food bottles; 83 million pounds is used in plastic strapping.

The consulting firm conducting the survey, R.W. Beck, reports that since not all of the Asian exporters were cooperative, the survey may be under-reporting exports. Consultants blame the situation on poor economic conditions and more bottles being consumed for recycling away from home.

While growth in use of PET has been in the double-digits for a number of years, the analysts say this growth has slowed as the market is maturing.

The observers say that if the Chinese buyers continue to out-bid recyclers and the supply cannot increase (it is inelastic, due to dependency on post-consumer recycling programs), more recyclers are in danger of going out of business.

Jenny Gitlitz of the Container Recycling Institute, a deposit advocacy group, points out that 3.2 billion pounds of PET were wasted in 2002, three times the amount trashed in 1995.

CRI director Pat Franklin claims that the only way to increase the supply of PET bottles to recyclers is to expand deposit laws, which industry opposes.

In Europe, we see a similar struggle. In Germany, for example, even though about 80% of that country’s PET has been collected in the $2 billion dual-system, the actual material recycling rate has fallen to 25% because of the one-way deposit chaos there.

Overall, it does not appear that Europe’s recycling rate for PET is dramatically higher than the U.S.

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