[GRRN] Calif. Tackles Declining Plastics Recyclling Rates

Bill Sheehan (zerowaste@grrn.org)
Tue, 20 Jul 1999 03:24:38 -0400

The fact sheet below, from Californians Against Waste,
gives background on pending California legislation
addressing the sorry state of plastics recycling.

As readers of this list are aware, it was the threat of state
mandates that got Coke and Pepsi in 1990 to make the
promises, now broken, to buy recycled plastic for their
soda bottles.

Wisconsin is also considering similar legislation for
similar reasons. What state will be next?

/Bill Sheehan
GrassRoots Recycling Network



Most of us have seen or heard the commercials about
how plastics are wonderful. They protect our food, keep
us warm, and make our cars safer. No one can deny that
plastics have made a major impact on our lives today. But
they have also contributed to the growing garbage
problem in California and the industry has done little to
help solve it.


The state of plastics recycling isn't much better than 1991
when the legislature first considered plastics recycling.
Consider the following facts:

State plastic recycling rates remain low. According to
data just compiled by Waste Board staff, most plastic
packaging containers (those not included in the Bottle
Bill program) are recycled at only a 13.9% rate in 1997.
The only significant plastic recycling in California is
under Bottle Bill program in which plastic containers
were recycled at a 57.9% rate.

State plastics recycling rate is following national trends
and dropping. Plastics recycling in California has seen
decreases similar to national trends. The combined
recycling rate for rigid plastics packaging containers
(both Bottle Bill and non-Bottle Bill) has decreased from
24.6% in 1995 to 23.2% in 1996 to 21.9% in 1997. The
recycling rate for plastic soda bottles recycled under the
Bottle Bill program decreased from a high of 70% in
1994 to 57% in 1998.

Plastics production far outpacing plastics recycling.
Plastics recycling in California is driven by national
production trends. The drop in plastics recycling is due to
massive increase in virgin plastics production. For
example, while the tonnage of plastic packaging recycled
increased by 55 million pounds between 1996 and 1997,
production of plastic packaging increased by 579 million
pounds. If the amount of plastics produced continues to
increase tenfold over the amount of plastics collected for
recycling, then the recycling will only continue to drop in
the future.

Plastics represents the fastest growing portion of the
waste stream. The dismal state of plastics recycling
will only become worse due to the rapid growth
in the use of plastics by manufacturers. From 1990 to
1996, national generation of plastics packaging increased
by 15.4%. The overall waste stream grew by only 2.2%
during the same period.


Plastics industry has reneged on a promise to recycle. In
1991, the plastics industry announced a goal of recycling
25% of all plastics by the year 1995. In 1996, after
realizing they had failed to meet that goal, the plastics
industry quietly stepped back from that goal. Meanwhile,
the industry has continued to allow the recycling rate to
drop while fighting public policies to hold manufacturers
responsible for helping to reduce plastic packaging waste.

Plastics recycling rate far below other materials. While
other materials such as paper, glass and metals have
demonstrated their recycling potential both in terms of
being recyclable and using recycled material, plastics has
lagged far behind. For example, the national recovered
paper utilization is 24.7% for paper and 48.0% for
paperboard, but overall plastics recycling remains below
10%. Within the California Bottle Bill program,
aluminum and glass containers are recycled at an 80%
recycling rate while plastics containers are recycled at
only a 57% rate.

Lack of recycling opportunities for most types of plastics.
Of the seven major types of plastic packaging classified
by the Society of the Plastics Industry (not to mention the
hundreds of other resins used in other plastic products),
only two resins (PET and HDPE) are recycled to any
significant degree in California. While nearly 90% of the
public has the opportunity to recycle through curbside
collection programs, less than 20% of those programs
accept plastics coded 3-7.

Plastics represent a disproportionate share of landfill
space. The plastics industry frequently point out that
plastics packaging represents only 4.8% by weight, but
landfills close because they run out of room, not because
they get too heavy. Plastics packaging actually makes up
11.2% by volume of the waste stream going to landfills.
Plastics overall are the second largest category of waste,
representing 25.1% of the total volume of municipal solid
waste going into landfills.

Local governments subsidize disposal of plastics. With
low recycling rates for plastics, local governments are
forced to landfill thousands of tons of plastics in
California, costing the public an estimated $300 million
in collection and disposal fees.


In order to reverse the downward spiral of plastics
recycling rates, Californians Against Waste is supporting
two measures in the California State Legislature:

SB 1110 by Senator Wes Chesbro would expand the
State's plastic recycling law (SB 235 from 1991) to
include all food and cosmetic container and would
increase the law's recycling rate and recycled content
requirements from 25% to 35% in order to level the
playing field and make it consistent with the State's
minimum content law.

SB 332 by Senator Byron Sher would expand the State's
Bottle Bill program to include non- alcoholic, non-
carbonated drink containers such as sports drinks, iced
teas, juices, and waters. In addition, SB 332 would
increase the deposit on 20 ounce plastic soft drink

Rick Best (916) 443-5422
Policy Director (916) 443-3912 fax
Californians Against Waste rgbest@cawrecycles.org
926 J Street, Suite 606 www.cawrecycles.org
Sacramento, CA 95814