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Unbending plastics: surging demand from China further hampers U.S. reclaimers of post-consumer PET and HDPE plastics.

The recycling rates for post-consumer PET (polyethylene) and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) containers continue to lag behind that for aluminum cans. In 2002, the recycling rate for PET containers stood at 19.8 percent, while HDPE was at 24.2 percent, according to figures from the 2002 National Post-Consumer Plastics Recycling Report, a cooperative study by the American Plastics Council (APC), the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR) and the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) conducted by R.W. Beck Inc. In contrast, the Aluminum Association reports a 53.4 percent recycling rate for aluminum cans in 2002.

While some credit the inherent value of the aluminum can for its higher recycling rate, PET and HDPE plastics battle a number of factors that contribute to their lagging recycling rates. In addition to problems collecting single-serve PET beverage containers, some industry observers claim inefficiencies at material recovery facilities (MRFs) and changes in the container stream are inhibiting plastic container recycling.

The modest recycling rates for PET and HDPE have left U.S. reclaimers in a supply crisis, with capacity exceeding supply in both industry segments. Jean Bina, director of commercial operations for Phoenix Technologies L.P., Bowling Green, Ohio, says declining recycling rates are negatively affecting the domestic markets that haw been successfully developed for these materials. Unusually high export demand from China has exacerbated the supply situation.

YEAR OF THE MONKEY. Asia's demand for post-consumer plastics has not only affected the availability and price of material, it has also affected its quality, some sources say.

"The Chinese in particular have stepped up their activities to source post-consumer PET bottles in the U.S.," Luke Schmidt, president of NAPCOR, Charlotte, N.C., says. "Historically, they have always been a major player on the West Coast, but now they are making their way across the country to the East Coast and have been very aggressive in their efforts to source bottles."

According to NAPCOR, the amount of PET shipped to export markets in 2002 grew 17.5 percent from the previous year. Floyd Flexon, vice president of environmental affairs for Amcor PET Packaging, a PET recycler processing roughly 30 million pounds annually at its facility in Novi, Mich., says that 2003 numbers will likely show that from 30 percent to 35 percent of the PEF collected in the U.S. went to China.

"Too many bales of plastic bottles are being shipped overseas from the West Coast to foreign markets," Judith Dunbar, Technical Assistance Program manager for the APC, Arlington, Va., says. "Foreign markets are not discriminating buyers...thus they take a higher percentage of contamination in with their plastic bottle bales. This is resulting in dire consequences for the domestic plastics recycling industry, both in terms of material quality and quantity."

Flexon agrees that China's demand has affected the quality of material available. "They will take just about anything and never say a word," he says. Therefore, suppliers of PET and HDPE have little incentive to improve quality.

Bina also notes the effects of China's demand. She says China has been buying everything available, inflating prices and negatively impacting quality. "Good quality and good pricing are hard to come by."

Phoenix Technologies uses technology developed by its managing partner Plastic Technologies Inc. to pelletize and crystallize recycled post-consumer PET for reuse in consumer and food-grade packaging applications.

While Flexon says China's demand has elevated the price of PET bales to a nine-year high, the domestic finished product market hasn't moved. "The domestic recyclers are under a terrible squeeze," he says. "I expect a number of PET recyclers to cease operations in the next 18 months if this market continues."

Arthur Ferguson, general manager of HDPE recycler KW Plastics, Troy, Ala., says markets for H DPE are strong and the applications for the material, including non-food-grade bottles, automotive components, piping, nursery containers, composite lumber and trash containers, are numerous. He says exports of HDPE are spotty, but serve to "confuse the market" with cash-on-the-spot purchases and seasonal buying.

Schmidt says post-consumer bales of PET are selling at 17 to 18 cents per pound. "That is a very strong price. The historical average has been in the neighborhood of seven, eight or nine cents a pound." He attributes the price increase to China's demand.

Flexon says the current 17-cents-perpound rate is a decrease from a high o f21.5 cents at the end of January. The decrease in price could reflect Chinese New Year, he says, though he claims the timing is not quite right. He suggests the price increase might instead signify a paradigm shift in the market.

"The biggest challenge now, in the recent past and in the foreseeable future is meeting the demand of the domestic plastic recycling industry for plastic bottles," Dunbar says.

"Demand Far exceeds supply for PET and HDPE bottles, which constitute 96 percent of all bottles produced," Dunbar, says.

Some stakeholders have attempted to address PET and HDPE recycling rates.

NUMBERS GAME. The recycling rate for PET was nearly 40 percent in 1995. It has declined steadily in subsequent years to its current rate. In the meantime, the HDPE recycling rate has climbed modestly. According to the APC, the total weight of HDPE collected increased by 50 million pounds in 2002. The APC reports that this is the largest increase in HDPE collected since 1994 and the largest increase in the HDPE recycling rate since 1995.

With the goal of maximizing public participation, the APC, NAPCOR, APR, NSDA, the International Bottled Water Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America embarked on the All Plastics Bottle Campaign. The campaign encourages residents of communities with curbside recycling to include all plastic bottles in their recycling bins, regardless of resin type. As PET and HDPE constitute the majority of bottles produced, the program seeks to increase their recovery volumes by eliminating the confusion associated with resin identification. As of 2003, nearly 1,600 curbside programs included all plastic bottles, Dunbar says.

However, for Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), Arlington, Va., such programs raise contamination concerns.

"One of the problems, obviously, with all-bottle collection programs is that you have a lower quality of materials because you have more kinds of bottles," she says.

Similarly, communities are moving toward single-stream recycling programs, citing higher collection volumes as a benefit.

IN THE MIX, "Single-stream recycling has had some positive impacts on plastics recycling," Dunbar says. "Since all-plastic-bottle collection and single-stream collection go well together, we feel confident that a higher percentage of households that have access to single-stream collection are recycling a higher percentage of their plastic bottles."

However, some detractors worry that some plastic bottles could be lost in paper bales in the single-stream process. "This loss could be somewhat offset by increased participation and 'capture' facilitated by single-stream collection," Dunbar says.

On the other hand, Ferguson believes single-stream recycling has had a negative impact on plastics recycling in light of the limited number of processors. "Commingled material has very few processors, and we are unaware of any new interest in the sorting of the materials," he says

Flexon also expresses concerns with single-stream recycling. "The material is very difficult to run. Can it be improved? I'm not sure." In light of China's demand, he doesn't see much incentive to improve the quality of the material.

Despite the growing number of communities using all-plastic-bottles programs and the move toward single-stream recycling, the PET recycling tale continues to decline. Many within the industry blame the decline on the difficulties associated with collecting single-serve containers.

SINGLED OUT. The APC credits the increase in HDPE recycling with the fact that HDPE containers hold milk, household cleaners and other products that are used at home and are, therefore, more easily captured by curbside recycling programs. PET, however, is largely used to make single-serve beverage containers that are often consumed away from home.

Schmidt says collecting single-serve PET beverage containers is a challenge. To help address this issue, NAPCOR has developed the Single-Serve Recycling Toolkit, which provides tips for establishing venue and special event recycling.

"Despite near-record prices being paid for all of these materials, there has not been a corresponding increase in collection," Dunbar says. "Consumers are not as enamored with recycling as they were in the 1990s. In addition, competing demands and reduced tax revenues have resulted in reduction or termination of some municipal recycling programs."

Franklin says deposit systems, or bottle bills, are the obvious solution to PET collection problems. "Of out two primary collection infrastructures--curbside recycling and deposit laws (or bottle bills)--bottle bills are far more effective in retrieving these containers," she says. "The reason is that there is a financial incentive involved. It's the same thing that makes aluminum can recycling more successful than plastic bottle recycling."

To illustrate her point, Franklin contrasts the recycling rates for PET soda bottles to that for custom PET bottles. In 2002, PET soda bottles, which were included in the 10 deposit systems then in place, were recycled at a rate of 31 percent. However, custom PET containers, which are used for water bottles and only included in two deposit systems at die time, were recycled at a rate of 11 percent. "That can be attributed to the fact that PET soda bottles are recycled at a much higher rate in bottle bill states because they have a deposit value," she says.

Dunbar, however, finds inherent value in plastic bottles. "Since plastic bottles are the second most valuable container commodity typically collected in residential recycling programs, this translates into a higher average container stream value, which can offset processing costs for recyclers," she says.

Schmidt says issues at MRFs also negatively impact the recycling rate for plastic bottles. For instance, he says a number of PET bottles collected at drop-off centers or through curbside programs are being discarded at MRFs. Schmidt blames poor worker training mid high worker turnover for the problem. "Workers are not necessarily trained to the point where they recognize a PET bottle given the various applications that are out there now. They all obviously recognize soft drink and water bottles, but they may not know that a shampoo bottle, for example, [could be] made of PET," he says.

The underlying issues surrounding plastics recycling, or recycling in general, seem to be education and motivation.

"Motivating and properly educating consumers on an ongoing basis, making it simple for them to recycle, providing more away-from-home recycling and looking at potential losses of plastic bottles from the processing end of things should help increase the supply of post-consumer plastic bottles," Dunbar says.


The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, N.C., has created the Single-Serve Recycling Toolkit, a step-by-step guide to establishing or expanding recycling programs for single-serve PET bottles at special events and venues.

The guide, available free from NAPCOR, details the steps involved in venue and event recycling, from analyzing costs and benefits to collecting, handling and processing the containers.

Those interested in requesting a copy or in receiving additional information should visit or phone (704) 845-5070.

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via e-mail at
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Title Annotation:Municipal Recycling Supplement; polyethylene; high-density polyethylene
Comment:Unbending plastics: surging demand from China further hampers U.S. reclaimers of post-consumer PET and HDPE plastics.(Municipal Recycling Supplement)(polyethylene)(high-density polyethylene)
Author:Toto, Deanne
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
Previous Article:The real value of recycling.
Next Article:Turnaround specialist: in an era of program cutbacks, the city of Philadelphia has turned its recycling program into an imitable champion.

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