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[GreenYes] Article: Plastic Recycling Is a Work in Progress
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Plastic Recycling Is a Work in Progress

March 30, 2002


At first glance, plastics recycling looks like an economic
and environmental success story.

Consider, for example, that about 25 percent of the
polyethylene fiber in Tyvek - a DuPont product used in
envelopes, disposable medical suits and insulation - comes
from jugs that once held milk or water. Fleece garments are
increasingly made of old soda bottles. "Plastic lumber,"
made in part from milk jugs, increasingly substitutes for
wood in decking and outdoor furniture, and the Plastic
Lumber Trade Association is testing the product for
rot-resistant bridges.

EvCo Research, an Atlanta company, is using recycled
beverage bottles to make water-repellent coatings on boxes
for shipping fruits and meats. The TEWA Technology
Corporation of Albuquerque is using shredded plastic in

Yet few companies have achieved the economies of scale that
could make recycling pay.

Manufacturers say they cannot get a stream of high-quality
material at a reasonable price. Recycling companies say
they cannot guarantee such a stream until sales grow robust
enough to drive down costs.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," said Gil Friend,
president of Natural Logic, an environmental consulting
firm in Berkeley, Calif.

Two years ago, environmentalists, manufacturers and
recyclers founded Business and Environmentalists in an
Alliance for Recycling - known as BEAR - to jump-start
plastics recycling. So far, it has only compiled data.

"We had a high objective, finding a way to recycle 80
percent of plastics," said the manager of the alliance,
Edward T. Boisson, an environmental consultant in
Pittsboro, N.C. "We didn't get there."

The results of the impasse are easy to spot. According to
the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 95 percent of
the 24.2 million tons of plastic waste generated each year
goes unreclaimed. Plastics already take up a
disproportionate amount of landfill space, and the glut is
likely to worsen: studies show that as many as 500 million
computers will be discarded over the next five years.

"Billions of pounds of plastics will not be dealt with in
an environmentally benign way," said Ted Smith, executive
director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an
environmental group in San Jose, Calif.

Manufacturers acknowledge the problem. Beverage companies,
although opposed to the spread of bills mandating return
deposits on bottles beyond the 10 states that have such
laws, are setting up their own retrieval programs. On Jan.
8, carpet manufacturers, environmental advocates and
regulators signed the National Carpet Recycling Agreement,
to promote carpet recycling.

Electronics companies have started "take back" programs to
collect discarded computers, printers and such. Similar
programs are mandatory in much of Europe. Many companies
are designing products to be easily disassembled, and
stamping components with codes signifying their chemical

But so far, few manufacturers are funneling all of their
used plastics back into their products. PepsiCo
(news/quote) experimented with a recycled bottle in the
early 1990's, but "the economics were just not there," a
spokesman recalled. Honeywell International (news/quote)
tried making new fibers from old carpets; it "didn't pan
out," a spokesman said, and Honeywell sold the business
last year.

DuPont has reclaimed 72 million pounds of carpet in the
last 10 years - enough to win it awards, but a tiny
fraction of the four billion pounds of carpet that Mark C.
Ryan, manager of environmental initiatives for Dupont
Commercial Flooring, said wound up in landfills each year.

"Carpet recycling hasn't grown as fast as people expected,
because the economics are fragile," he said.

Economics are not the only problem. The customers of
Collins & Aikman Floor Coverings, a carpet manufacturer in
Dalton, Ga., provide an inexpensive stream of used
recyclable carpets. Still, some 40 percent of the fibers in
Collins carpets are virgin plastic - and will be, until
Collins is certain that its suppliers have perfected their
recycling processes. Collins is a unit of Quad-C.

"We can't take a chance of defects affecting quality," Lee
H. Schilling, a senior vice president, said.

That concern is even more prevalent in the electronics
industry. Each month, Hewlett-Packard (news/quote) ships
200,000 pounds of plastics from discarded computers and
printers to recyclers. But it is turned into carpet backing
and fuel pellets. Hewlett says the old plastics are a
mélange unsuitable for new products.

"It would only make sense if we could make all of our
products out of one uniform batch of recycled plastics,"
said Renee St. Denis, who, as Hewlett's end-of-life process
manager, grapples with such issues.

To make matters worse, even recycling's most ardent
supporters often squabble among themselves. Beverage
companies detest bottle bills; other users of recycled
plastics want them passed. Environmental advocates want
beverage companies to recycle old bottles into new ones,
while carpet companies want the old bottles for themselves.

Industry truces would not solve recycling's volatile
economics. Virgin plastics are made from oil, recycled
plastics from trash, so logic would suggest that recycled
materials would be cheaper. But it is costly to collect,
transport, sort and clean discarded plastics. And every
time oil prices fall - and they fell by more than one-third
last year - recycled plastic loses value.

"Recycled plastics are a commodity, and commodity prices
are low," said Richard McCombs, chief operating officer of
MBA Polymers, a company in Richmond, Calif., with a
patented technology for separating plastics from
electronics devices.

Moreover, items made of recycled plastics, while more
durable, are expensive. EvCo's plastic coating runs about
$2.50 a pound, compared with about 50 cents a pound for
wax. The upfront cost of plastic decking can be twice that
of wood. TEWA's asphalt is more expensive than asphalt made
of rock and sand.

The manufacturers of these products say that less of their
product is required by weight, and that their products
perform better. But customers are not easy to convince.

"We're bottlenecked by end users who are resistant to
change," said Len Cox, who handles TEWA's marketing. Alan
E. Robbins, president of the plastic lumber association,
echoed that complaint. "The folks who make wood are good at
parrying our claims," he said.

Recyclers who do win customers over may still be stymied by
the problem of getting waste plastic.

Most bottles are made of "pure" plastics - polyethylene
terephthalate, or PET, for soda bottles, and high-density
polyethylene for milk bottles - that are easily turned into
carpets, plastic lumber or bottles.

Some 75 percent of the bottles the Coca-Cola Company
(news/quote) uses in North America have 10 percent recycled
content, and the company said it planned for all of its
bottles to have recycled content by 2005. And Pepsi,
despite its past disappointments with recycling, said last
month that it, too, aimed to have 10 percent recylced
content in all bottles by 2005.

But beverage companies have easy access to their old
bottles. Coca-Cola collected discarded bottles at a Nascar
event in Atlanta in November and at the Winter Olympic
Games in Salt Lake City. Coke sent the Nascar plastic to a
recycler; it will use the Olympics plastic itself.

But experts say that only bottle bills can give small
companies access to the four billion PET bottles that end
up on roadsides or in landfills each year. "The bottles are
there, but getting them is a problem," said John G.
Kokoszka, EvCo's vice president for operations.

The problems are even greater for those who want to reuse
plastics from durable goods like computers. They contain
blends of plastics, metals, glues and additives that are
hard to separate. And, discarded bottles are usually a few
months old. Discarded durables vary in age by decades, and
can include plastics that are no longer used.

Some companies anticipated that problem. In the 1990's,
I.B.M. (news/quote) began using the same plastic in several
products, making them easier to recycle. Three years ago
I.B.M. introduced the IntelliStation E Pro, a computer with
plastic parts made almost entirely of recycled resins.

"We wanted to demonstrate that using recycled plastics was
viable," said Wayne Balta, I.B.M.'s vice president for
corporate environmental affairs. Mr. Balta said that
I.B.M.'s goal was to eventually use recycled resins in most

Those goals may yet be attainable. Recycling companies are
already experimenting with optical recognition technology
and electric charges to separate plastics, and with
solvents that remove glues and labels.

"Technology is no longer the major barrier to recycling,"
said Michael M. Fisher, director of technology for the
American Plastics Council. "People have to figure a way
around the collection problems."

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Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Ted Smith
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition/Campaign for Responsible Technology
760 N. First Street,San Jose, CA 95112
408-287-6707-phone;  408-287-6771-fax
Food for thought:  How Gandhi Defined the Seven Deadly Sins
ˇ Wealth without work; ˇ Pleasure without conscience; ˇ Knowledge without character;ˇ Commerce without morality;
ˇ Science without humanity;ˇ Worship without sacrifice;ˇ Politics without principle

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