PET Container Recycling Rises, Report States

For the second consecutive year, the rate of public recycling of post-consumer polyethylene plastic (PET) has increased, according to the Charlotte, N.C.-based National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) 1999 report on PET container recycling activity.

In 1998, 745 million pounds of post-consumer PET beverage containers were collected from public recycling programs, compared with 691 million pounds in 1997. In 1999, 771 million pounds were collected, the report states. The gross recycling rate was highest in 1995, when nearly 40 percent of the almost 2 billion pounds of PET bottles were recycled [see "1999 Gross Recycling Rate" below].

In 1999, about 580 million pounds were sold to U.S. reclaimers, 183 million pounds went to export markets and 2 million pounds were sold to composite applications, according to the report.

NAPCOR also determined that 3.25 billion pounds of PET bottles and jars were available for recycling in 1999, the number the organization used as the denominator in determining both recycling and use rates.

Most exported PET material today goes to China, according to a spokesperson for an organization that worked on the report. Her company sent a survey to 71 exporters and potential exporters asking how much PET material they had sold in either bottles or flakes. While material also goes to Canada, India, Mexico, Indonesia and a few other countries, China has the greatest need for the raw goods, she says.

"It's a matter of price and convenience," the spokesperson says. "In China, there's a quota on the amount of virgin polyester that can be imported, so that's driven up the value of polyester in China. PET scrap is not under the quota there because the quota's on virgin plastic."

In all the countries, PET is made into fiber and bottles, just like in the United States.

Market prices were stagnant during the first three quarters of 1999 because low prices for competing raw material kept bale prices from rising, the report states.

By the fourth quarter, however, "depleted inventories, virgin [plastic] price increases and intense export pressure combined to force increases," the report says.

Aside from the exporter surveys, material was collected by the Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington, D.C.; R.W. Beck Inc., Seattle; and NAPCOR. Collectors, intermediate processors, reclaimers, brokers, end-users and others in the plastics industry were surveyed.

After nine years of growth, additional market penetration of PET bottles and jars on U.S. shelves was about 9 percent in 1999, according to the report.

NAPCOR attributes the flat rate to the "market stagnation of PET used in carbonated soft drink containers," although there was growth in other PET containers for products such as water and juice, the report states.

While the statistics are promising, NAPCOR spokesperson Luke Schmidt says raising the overall declining PET product recycling rate is a challenge.

The organization recently hired a full-time employee to increase NAPCOR's focus and efforts on IPET - single-serve, 20-ounce soft drink bottles - and custom PET containers such as shampoo bottles, salad dressing containers and food containers, Schmidt says.

Another area NAPCOR is concerned with is the drop in promotion of neighborhood curbside recycling programs, he says.

"There's a real need in this country for renewed education and promotion of these programs. The collection infrastructure is there, but homeowners don't know that beyond soft drink bottles and [a few other products], other PET containers are recyclable."

The report serves as a benchmark each year for NAPCOR, Schmidt says.

To view the 1999 Report on Post Consumer PET Recycling Activity, visit NAPCOR's website: www.napcor.com