[GRRN] What's Bottom Line on Plastics Recycling?

Bill Sheehan (zerowaste@grrn.org)
Thu, 21 Oct 1999 01:11:52 -0400

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

October 17, 1999


Jeff Nesmith - Staff

For some, it's a PET project paying dividends down the
road; to others, the payoff is just not worth the effort.

WASHINGTON -- When the Coca-Cola Co. declared
nine years ago that it would use recycled plastic in its
soft drink bottles, Thomas Duff dismissed the
announcement as a "public relations exercise."

"They've lost track of the economics," said Duff,
president of Wellman Inc., the largest plastics recycler
in the country. He predicted the recycling initiative ---
announced with fanfare and promises of "closed loop"
recycling of plastic bottles --- would not last long
because it was impractical.

He was right.

Within three years, Coke had quietly dropped the
recycling program. Now, a national campaign headed
by the GrassRoots Recycling Network of Athens, is
trying to pressure the huge soft drink company into
resuming it.

But Duff said the problem is not insufficient demand
for recycled material by Coke and other users, but the
fact that so few bottles find their way into the recycling

"Every bottle that comes in through recycling gets used
right now," Duff said. "It displaces a certain amount of
plastic from the market. If Coke or anyone else starts
buying recycled plastic, other users will just be forced
to go to virgin resin market."

In the end, Duff said, very little more polyethylene
terephthalate, or PET, the material used in the bottles,
will be recycled.

Coca-Cola spokesman Bill Hensel said recycled PET is
being used in some plastic bottles used by Coke
bottlers, absent the kind of corporate commitment the
GrassRoots Recycling Network is pushing. Also,
recycled glass, aluminum and iron go into other Coca-
Cola containers, he said.

But the argument goes to the heart of a swelling debate
over America's commitment to recycling.

Despite mandates by some states, notably California
and New York, that at least 50 percent of all municipal
solid waste be recycled by the end of next year, some
experts say the country has just about reached a
practical recycling limit of between 25 and 30 percent.

"If you look at it semi-realistically, I don't see how you
can get much more than this," said Winston Porter,
former assistant administrator for solid waste at the
Environmental Protection Agency.

As a result, cities and counties in states with the 50
percent mandates may face a "trash 2K" problem next
year, required by state law to operate recycling
programs that will result in products that are worth
significantly less than the cost of reclaiming them,
Porter said.

Porter, now head of a Leesburg, Va., consulting firm,
the Waste Policy Center, set EPA's national goal of
recycling 25 percent of the nation's solid waste when he
was at EPA in 1989. It's neither economical nor wise,
he contends, to push the process further. "Composting
doesn't make much sense when you spend $10 to make
a $2 product," he said.

Scott Seydel, president of Atlanta-based EvCo
Research Inc., agrees with Duff that there is no shortage
of ways to use recycled PET. The company operates a
factory at Pendergrass, where it converts chips of
recycled bottles into a substance that can be added to
paper fibers used to make water-resistant boxes for
shipping fresh meat and other food products.

The company has developed and patented other uses for
recycled PET, including shoe liners, nontoxic treatment
for wood products, pallets for shipping and soil-
repellent coatings for carpet fibers.

"We can set up a plant for around a million dollars that
will turn a half-billion PET bottles into useful liquid
coatings and adhesives or binders that can be used
anywhere that water, oil, or stain resistance is needed,
or anywhere someone wants something to stick
together," Seydel said. "We won't ever run out of raw
materials because the use of PET plastics has grown in
double digits almost every single year since being
introduced (except 1985-1986)."

That's what worries people like Bill Sheehan,
coordinator of the GrassRoots Recycling Network. The
National Association for PET Container Resources, an
industry group, estimates that almost 25 percent of the
PET produced in America is recycled. The production
of new PET continues to outpace slight growth in the
quantity that is recycled, a trend that will accelerate
with the introduction in the past few months of PET
beer bottles by Millers Brewing Co.

Sheehan and others believe ingrained habits and
policies have distorted the way America handles waste.
Garbage-hauling firms make much more profit from
compacting municipal solid waste and disposing of it in
a landfill than through recycling, he said. At the other
end of the resource stream, Sheehan said, are tax breaks
and government policies that subsidize the use of virgin

Coca-Cola spokesman Bill Hensel said the company
has not "reneged" on a promise to recycle PET, as
Sheehan's group charges. Instead, he said, it agreed to
try the idea, and "it just wasn't economically feasible."
Although Coca-Cola uses about 10 billion plastic
bottles a year in the United States, Hensel said he
enjoys informing print journalists that newsprint is the
largest segment of solid waste going into America's
landfills. He said soft drink containers of all kind
represent less than 1 percent of the total.

According to a recent EPA report, the country's
municipal solid waste stream in 1996, the most recent
year for which statistics are available, included 41.4
million tons of paper and paperboard, 29 percent of
which was reclaimed and recycled. The stream included
5.3 million tons of plastic, of which a "negligible"
quantity was recycled, EPA said.

"It costs so much for us to reclaim, clean and recycle
PET that we would have driven the price up for
ourselves and everyone else," Hensel said.

To Sheehan and others, such as William Worrell,
manager of the San Luis Obispo County Integrated
Waste Management Authority in California, that's the
point. The increased value, they said, would stimulate
more vigorous recycling efforts. Recyclable PET was
selling for around $6 a ton last week, according to
Waste News, an industry publication. Aluminum cans
were bringing $33 a ton, and newsprint from $5 to $95
a ton, depending on the grade.

"How come aluminum cans are recycled at the 80 to 90
percent rate and PET bottles at around 30 percent?"
Worrell asked. "If Coca-Cola and the others would use
recycled material, the price of PET would go up and
there would be greater recycling."

Seydel said Coke is a PET "pioneer --- not a villain."

"But the GrassRoots Recycling Network and Container
Recycling Institute are heroes too because they want the
folks who put the PET in the cosmos to be good
stewards of where it goes after they've made their
money," he said. "I don't see their differences as being
nonreconcilable. It's probably time for a summit of

1. Fiber, 59 percent
2. Sheet and film, 13 percent
3. Strapping, 9 percent
4. Non-food containers, 7 percent
5. Food and Beverage containers, 7 percent
6. Engineered resins and molding compounds, 4 percent
7. Other, 1 percent
Source: National Associateion of PET Container
Resources, Charlotte, NC