Plastic Not So Fantastic

This year marks the 15th anniversary of what is probably the biggest recycling-related PR effort since the first Earth Day: the stamping of nearly every disposable plastic container on the market with the chasing arrows recycling symbol. In 1988, in the face of public outcry and potential legislative action, the plastics industry devised a complex system of codes purportedly to help recyclers deal with plastics, which come in a dizzying array of types.
But plastics recycling still doesn’t work. The American Plastics Council (APC), the industry group that represents virgin plastic manufacturers, reports a recycling rate of just 21.5 percent for all types of plastic bottles in 2001. Total virgin plastic resin sales in the United States continue to soar, increasing by over six percent between 2001 and 2002. The APC reports total resin production of 107.5 billion pounds in 2002. Of that, just seven billion pounds gets made into plastic bottles; of these, just 1.5 billion pounds makes it back to a recycling yard. That’s less than two percent of the amount in virgin production.
And the complexity remains. Narrow-neck soda and water bottles made of type 1 PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) should be kept separate from milk jugs made of type 2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which must be separated from wide-mouthed yogurt tubs, even if they’re marked with the same number. Then there’s the highly toxic number 3, PVC (polyvinyl chloride), the nearly useless number 6 (polystyrene or Styrofoam), not to mention number 7, “other.” Confused? Join the club.
Disposable plastic packaging—made of crude oil, doped with toxic additives, and difficult to recycle—remains the bête noir of the recycling world. There are small pieces of good news, like Coca-Cola’s finally making good on its promise to include recycled material in its soda bottles, and Pepsi’s vow to do so by the end of 2005. New compostable plastics made from plant material hold promise. But, overall, both recyclers and activists agree that the outlook for plastic recycling remains bleak—unless packaging manufacturers can be made truly accountable for the disposal of the packaging they create.
After years of pressure from activist groups, Coca-Cola’s decision to use an average of ten percent recycled content in its PET soda bottles has changed the landscape for domestic PET recycling. “The use of [recycled] plastics in beverage packaging is the fastest growing market for the [PET] plastic in those bottles,” says Jerry Powell, editor of the Plastic Recycling Update, an industry newsletter. Last year, about 86 million pounds went back into type 1 PET food and beverage containers, compared to just 24 million in 1996.
But this amounts to a mere trickle amidst a flood of 4 billion pounds of new plastic containers made from PET, the ubiquitous resin used in soda, juice, and water bottles. According to the National Association of PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), the PET plastic bottle recycling rate fell to 19.9 percent in 2002, half the 39.7 percent peak achieved in 1995. “The primary reason for the rate falling is that sales have increased so much that they’re just dwarfing the recycling,” says Jennifer Gitlitz of the Container Recycling Institute.
Ralph Taylor manages a Michigan plant responsible for some 40 million pounds of recycled bottle manufacturing annually. For years, his business boomed only when virgin plastic prices skyrocketed. Now, with the big beverage makers’ commitment to at least ten percent recycled content, he seems to have a stable market.
But the late awakening of the recycled-bottle industry is fast becoming a bitter irony: Taylor’s supply of discarded soda bottles is drying up, despite relatively stable collection weights and ballooning beverage sales. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that about 20 percent of the material collected in the US ends up in China,” Taylor says. “The Chinese will bid that material up higher and higher all the time. We could well lose three or four commercial recyclers of PET this year, because they just can’t afford to stay in business.” With fewer than two dozen major US reclaimers using recycled plastics for everything from bottles to synthetic carpets to garden edging board, a loss of three or four would be dramatic.
Why is China buying so much? No one is quite sure, though the assumption is that they’re using it to manufacture “fiber-grade” products like carpet and fleece. Not even Patty Moore, whose Plastic Recycling Corporation of California buys and resells over half the collected PET plastic in the state, can say where it goes after she sells it to Hong Kong brokers: “There’s no transparency in China at all. I can’t even figure out who the reclaimers are in China.”
Because China sends over such huge volumes of goods, it costs next to nothing to ship back container-loads of baled plastic. Taylor is afraid that American products made from recycled plastic will be undercut by those from China. “You could well be exporting the baled PET to China, and they could be sending it back here [as cheap carpeting],” he says.
Taylor would like to see the US collect twice as much PET. That would drive down the price per bale and give him and other recyclers more than a trickle of materials. Yet on the other side, with production of cheap virgin resin increasing every year, it’s like trying to outrun a flood. The Ecology Center’s recycling manager, Dave Williamson, has long struggled with the problem. “Recycling of plastic is not really displacing anything,” he says. “I don’t see any closures of plastic factories.”
Even if those factories were shutting down, there’s a limit to how much plastic can be recycled. Unlike glass and aluminum, plastics contain polymer chains that break down each time they’re melted for remanufacture. At some point, the plastic is just so much tired detritus, ready for the dump. As long as recycled content remains a minority of a bottle’s material, degraded polymers are diluted with virgin plastic. But if bottles started getting made with enough recycled content to really dent virgin production, we’d be hit with the difficulty of degrading polymers.
Ultimately, there’s way too much plastic in the world. A 2001 study by pioneering marine researcher Charles Moore found six times more plastic debris than zooplankton by weight in an area of the central Pacific where currents collect the detritus flooded out of California creeks or dropped overboard from trans-Pacific freighters. Even worse, these plastics break down into bits that birds and fish mistake for food.
In San Francisco, plastic is the number-one contaminant in the city’s compost system—which is a significant problem, since the city has the nation’s most extensive residential and commercial food and yard waste compost program. Jack Macy, with the city’s Department of the Environment, ran the city’s composting program and now oversees industrial recycling. Macy believes the most promising innovation on the horizon is bioplastic: food-starch-based plastics that are truly compostable.
A joint venture between Dow Chemical and Cargill last year opened the largest factory yet to produce plastics made from corn starch. The plastic, called PLA, is used for things like rigid plastic packaging in Wild Oats markets and Ipe, the Italian equivalent of Target. “That’s an incredible material, because you can create products that are clear plastics,” Macy says. “There is no petroleum in there, and the stuff composts great. With the opening of that plant, we predict a big growth in this market.” Not only that, but it can theoretically be recycled indefinitely.
Is this finally a solution to the problems of petrochemical-based plastics? Not even CargillDow’s Michael O’Brien will go that far. He has ten-year projections that put the bioplastics market at 1 billion pounds a year—less than 1 percent of last year’s US virgin resin production. For that to change, more companies need to enter the market in a big way, generating different types of bio-based resins for various uses. Cargill-Dow’s plastic is rigid—good for containers and even, in Japanese test markets, for Sony Walkmen. But you can’t make bags out of it.
Even if you could, that wouldn’t be enough for Beverly Thorpe, in the Montreal office of Clean Production Action, an international organization that works to make manufacturers responsible for the waste their products generate. Thorpe believes such plastics will never be a solution unless they come with a sea-change in plastic consumption and strict rules that force manufacturers to pay for their waste—making reduced packaging and increased reuse and recycling essential to the bottom line.
A lifecycle analysis done by CargillDow suggests that their new plastics would cut oil consumption by 20 to 50 percent. But what would change if they were churned out to the tune of 108 billion pounds a year? Unless CargillDow and others make good on hopes to use cornstalks and other farm waste as their raw material, that would require a 50 percent increase in feed-corn harvests—now some ten billion bushels of corn grown under an industrial farming system that often depletes soils, pollutes waterways, and leaves small farmers with crushing debt. “Until we wrestle with the issue of consumption, it doesn’t really matter what material we use,” Thorpe says. “If we go from a petrochemical-based feedstock to an industrial agricultural one that is based on pesticides, herbicides, and [genetically engineered crops], then I don’t see that that is any better.”
For Gitlitz, with the Container Recycling Institute, innovative materials are most often a distraction from the real solution: refillable bottles, whether they’re made of glass, plastic, or something else. “When you’re talking about disposable, one-way containers, all of them consume energy and create waste,” she says. “The best alternative is refillables.”
But no one foresees manufacturers like Coke or Pepsi developing new refillable bottles unless they’re forced to do so—either by some unexpected spike in the price of new plastic, or by legislation forcing their hands. “People like to recycle,” says David Wood, of the GrassRoots Recycling Network, “but when they realize that the system is not working, that begs the question of why recycle at all. The reason we’re doing as well as we are is because of [people’s recycling], but the only way to get beyond where we are today is to shift responsibility back onto the brand owners.”

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