Tumbling Down

ALTHOUGH THE POLYETHYLENE terephtalate (PET) container recycling rate declined just slightly from 2002 to 2003, the decrease is part of an alarming downward trend that began in the mid-1990s.

According to a report released by Charlotte, N.C.-based National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the PET recycling rate for 2003 was 19.6 percent, down 0.3 percentage points from 2002. “The rate decrease from 2002 to 2003 is very small,” says Jenny Gitlitz, research director for the Arlington, Va.-based Container Recycling Institute (CRI). “It's the long-term trend that should concern us.”

Since 1995, the PET recycling rate has fallen by almost 20 percentage points while consumption has risen from 1.9 billion pounds in 1995 to 4.3 billion pounds last year, according to NAPCOR. Most of the consumption increase has come from single-serve noncarbonated beverage containers such as bottled water. These products often are consumed away from home — and away from available recycling receptacles. Unless individuals live in a state that has a container deposit law, they do not have many options to recycle PET containers that are used away from home, Gitlitz says.

But even bottle deposit laws have their limits. “If we look at the 10 deposit states, eight of those don't include noncarbonated beverages in their deposit definitions,” Gitlitz adds.

According to CRI, there are environmental costs to the decreased recycling rate. Considering the recycling rate of approximately 20 percent, it takes energy equivalent to 6.5 million barrels of crude oil to replace PET containers that have been disposed of with new ones made from virgin resin.

Industry groups are focused on bolstering the rate in the next few years. In an October 2004 resolution, board members of the Arlington, Va.-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) recommended a goal of a 40 percent PET recycling rate by January 2007. APR suggests that more focus should be on away-from-home collection efforts. CRI would like to see an 80 percent recycling rate for PET, Gitlitz says.

While the PET recycling rate has plummeted, the overall amount of the material collected increased slightly in 2003, according to NAPCOR. The increase of 44 million pounds can be accounted for in part by the reinstatement of plastics recycling in New York City. Nations such as China that have low labor costs and government-subsidized factories are gobbling up the additional volume of post-consumer PET, and domestic suppliers are willing to sell to them because they can offer top-dollar prices, the NAPCOR report indicates.