Recycling at a crossroads

14 March 2004 (Last Updated March 14th, 2004 18:30)

As recycling rates decline, The PET industry is failing to meet today's demand for post-consumer PET - a trend that must be reversed, says Luke Schmidt of the National Association for PET Container Resources.

These days, PET containers are ubiquitous. Whether in the office, in a restaurant, at the university or on the football field, it is very common to see consumers drinking out of PET containers.

Initially, PET was primarily used to package carbonated soft drinks. The bottle construction was simple; it consisted of a monolayer that was either clear or green. In the last decade, PET containers have diversified drastically.

Today, the material is used to package various food and beverage products, including water, soft drinks, liquor, juice, isotonic drinks, milk, beer, salad dressings, sauces, mustards, peanut butter, ketchup and cooking oils, as well as non-food products such as liquid detergents and household cleaners, and personal products such as shampoo and mouthwash.

Where are we today?

PET recycling has come a long way since the first bottle was recycled in 1977. In 2002, the PET industry produced more than 1,800,000t of resin, which was used to make bottles.

This is strong evidence of the consumer preference for PET packaging and the innovation that both PET industry producers and brand owners have brought to the marketplace.

In terms of recycling, 362,000t of post-consumer PET bottles were collected and recycled in the USA in 2002. Although that is an impressive figure, the industry is still struggling to keep pace with the meteoric growth on the virgin side, which has resulted in a continuous decline in the PET recycling rate. Clearly, there is still more work to be done in the area of collection in order to reverse this trend.

The demand for post-consumer PET bottles continues to outstrip the supply. Currently, the PET reclamation industry fails to meet the demand for the growing list of products manufactured from post-consumer PET bottles. Polyester fibre, which is used to make carpet, continues to dominate the use of post-consumer PET bottles.

In fact, 100 per cent of all polyester carpet made in the USA is made from recycled PET bottles.

While industrial strapping remains an important market, the manufacturing of new PET bottles, both food and non-food grade, that contain recycled content is also growing rapidly. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have committed to using 10 per cent recycled content in all PET packages sold in the USA by 2005, which is fuelling this growth.

Another growing area for PET recycling is venue recycling. Single-serve PET bottles are increasing rapidly in the marketplace. The vast majority of these bottles are consumed away from home and away from recycling facilities.

What comes next?

Where do we go from here? In many countries, recycling is at a historical crossroads. Let us take the USA as an example.

First, although the collection infrastructure is sound and extensive, additional reinvestments are required to ensure that every community programme operates according to all of the best practices and in the most cost-efficient manner possible.

Second, education and promotion need to be reintroduced on a local basis to increase the recycling rates, particularly PET recycling rates. As in the case of any other product or service, recycling needs to be promoted on an ongoing basis to ensure continuous positive change.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a real need to identify new sources of funding to support community recycling. State and local budget shortfalls have led several large cities to openly question the future of their respective programmes. Creative funding solutions must be found to ensure the ongoing and future success of local recycling programmes.

These issues are not unique to the USA, and most countries must take action to meet these challenges.

Author & Organisation Profile

Luke Schmidt is president of the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the trade association for the PET industry in the USA and Canada. NAPCOR members are manufacturers of PET resins and PET plastic bottles, suppliers to the PET industry and users of PET packaging. Founded in 1987 as a non-profit corporation, the association's mission is to facilitate PET recycling and promote the use of PET packaging. The author can be contacted on: lukeschmidt@napcor.com.