[GRRN] WSJ on Plastics Recycling Woes

Bill Sheehan (zerowaste@grrn.org)
Thu, 18 Nov 1999 02:00:36 -0500

Wall Street Journal / Marketplace

November 16, 1999


By Susan Warren

Plastics recycling is in the dumps

Just a few years ago, recycling was removing huge
quantities of plastics from the nation's trash. Now, the
economics of the industry are wobbly.

Consumers, no longer worrying over landfills, are less
interested in saving and sorting empty milk bottles and
detergent jugs. Recyclers are losing money in a glutted
resin market. And the same companies that couldn't
slap environmental claims on their products fast enough
five years ago now are set to unleash a flood of new
types of plastic packages that will make recycling even
more complicated and unattractive than it is already.

These packages, made from what some people in the
industry call "gourmet" plastics, include composite
materials and bright colors that cost recyclers more
money to process and consumers more time and effort.
Foremost among them is the plastic beer bottle, a long-
awaited innovation that, if it becomes standard, could
deal a severe blow to plastics recycling in its current

Philip Morris Cos.' Miller Brewing Co. is test
marketing a plastic single-serving beer bottle in
convenience stores in more than a dozen cities,
including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and Miami.
Anheuser-Busch Cos. brought its own short-lived test to
a quick halt in April after it met with lukewarm
consumer response. Still, a plastic bottle of one form or
another is regarded as inevitable in the beer industry,
given its advantages of being light, sturdy and

Plastic packaging is growing ever more popular. Since
1995, the use of PET, or polyethylene terephthalate
plastic, in bottles such as those for soda has soared
54%, to 3,005 pounds in 1998 from 1,950 pounds in
1995, according to the National Association for PET
Container Resources, a Charlotte, N.C., trade group. At
the same time, plastics recycling is plummeting: In
1998, only 19.6% of plastics escaped landfills and were
recycled, down from 1994 when 34% of plastics were
recycled, according to the group.

Unlike aluminum and paper, plastics come in many
variations that in most cases must be meticulously
sorted in order to produce recycled resin that can be
sold. Cloudy white milk jugs, made from high-density
polyethylene, or HDPE, are usually processed
separately from bright-colored detergent and juice
bottles, made from another kind of HDPE. Both must
be kept separate from soda bottles, made from PET
plastic. Even a smidgen of PVC vinyl -- the material
used in the lining of some bottle caps -- can destroy a
whole batch of PET bottle resin. Then there are all
those other plastics -- yogurt cups, takeout containers,
baby-wipe boxes - that belong to categories all their

'Throw Away the Plastic'

Many consumers have concluded the effort isn't worth
it. Kristen Defibaugh, 13, says her Dallas-area middle
school has a program for recycling aluminum cans but
not for plastic soda bottles. "We just throw away the
plastic," she says.

A number of recycling companies also have decided
that plastics recycling doesn't pay. Oversupplies of
virgin resins and weak prices have made recycled resin
less competitive. In the past two years, major plastics
makers like DuPont Co., Phillips Petroleum Co. and
Union Carbide Co. have quietly shuttered recycling
operations. The recycling business "is the worst I've
ever seen it," says Steve Babinchak, the founder of St.
Jude Polymers Corp., a 22-year-old recycling business
based in Frackville, Pa., named for the patron saint of
lost causes.

The 20-ounce PET soda bottle is the prime culprit
behind the decline of plastics recycling. Because they
are purchased and consumed on the go, these bottles
rarely find their way into a recycling bin. Yet they
accounted for an estimated 13 billion soft-drink bottles
in 1998, more than half the 24 billion plastic soft drink
bottles sold in the U.S. that year, according to John
Maddox, a Waverly, Ga., packaging consultant.

The plastic beer bottle, also made of PET, could be
even more of a threat. Although beer is now a tiny
fraction of the PET-package market, industry experts
believe if the plastic bottle were to become the beer
industry standard, it could double the amount of PET
packaging on the market.

The PET used to make beer bottles presents a whole set
of recycling headaches. It has a special chemical
coating, or "barrier," designed to keep out oxygen that
would spoil the beer. The barrier, the amber color and
other particulars of the caps and labels mean the PET
beer bottles can't be commingled with the PET soda
bottle for recycling. "One of our biggest fears is what
we call 'the stew,'" says Robin Cotchan, director of the
Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers, a
Washington group.

The plastic beer bottle could be the last straw for Mr.
Babinchak, who says his business hasn't made money
for three years. At present, he sells recycled PET plastic
for 32 to 40 cents a pound. Although the market has
turned up a bit in recent weeks, his customers -- makers
of carpet, clothing, plastic-strapping and nonfood
packages -- can buy off-grade virgin resin for about 25
cents a pound.

Sorting plastic amber beer bottles from soda bottles
could cost recyclers an additional 6 cents to 8 cents per
pound, according to Peter Anderson, a Madison, Wis.,
recycling consultant. Aluminum caps also must be
sorted out; metalized labels may contaminate the resin,
he says.

Mr. Babinchak and other recyclers are nervously
guessing how much the PET beer bottle will cost them.
"Maybe we'll end up with 5% [of the new bottles] in
100 pounds. And that shouldn't hurt you," he figures.
"But nobody knows yet when that one more bottle
[will] totally destroy the whole truckload."

Miller Brewing says it is sensitive to recyclers' needs.
Scott Bussen, a Miller Lite spokesman, says, "We
understand the anxiety in the recycling community, but
we have been going through the process behind the
scenes working to make sure this is an environmentally
responsible package."

Ralph Armstrong, director of new markets for
Continental PET Technologies, a unit of Owens-Illinois
Inc. and the maker of Miller Brewing's plastic bottle,
says after the resin is processed, only scant traces of
contaminant from the barrier coating will remain. "We
know before you start in designing the beer package
that it has to be recyclable," he says.

Tom Bavaria, technical manager at Envipco Plastics,
the U.S. recycling division of Belgium's Envipco
Holding NV, took part in a test of Miller's plastic bottle
and gives it high marks for recyclability. But he says he
is bracing for major headaches from other new colored
and coated bottles hitting the market. "There are
containers out there that really scare us quite a bit," Mr.
Bavaria says.

Recyclers complain that if consumers would only
demand more recycled content in the packages they
buy, then manufacturers would use more and the
market would improve. Indeed, Mr. Maddox, the
Georgia consultant, says packagers emphasize eye-
catching appearance and high performance because
those are the things consumers want. "I'm sorry that it's
messing up the recycling numbers," he says, "but who
gives a damn?"

Price Is Priority

Certainly not many consumers these days. Darin Morse,
32, an information systems manager from suburban
Dallas who does the family grocery shopping, says
price is his top priority. "And then quality," he says. "I
don't say 'Oh, I guess I'll buy this because it's

Says Kathy Buehner, a 51-year-old human resources
manager, "It's what's inside the container, not the
container, that I'm buying."

Some companies are trying. A few years ago, Quaker
Oats Co.'s Gatorade division designed a bottle with
recycling-friendly features: better-quality resin,
minimum glue on the label, no base cup. But it used a
cap with a PVC lining -- and just a few caps ruined the
works. Mr. Babinchak remembers telling a Gatorade
official: "Look, guys, you make such a beautiful bottle.
A guy could fall in love with that bottle. But your caps
are killing us." Quaker eventually switched caps.

Eastman Chemical Co., of Kingsport, Tenn., says it is
working on a new recycling technology that should be
able to remove a wide range of contaminants from
plastic resin, answering recyclers' complaints about the
new bottles. Tom C. Parham, Eastman's manager of
plastics recycling, says consumers "like what PET will
do: better bottles, clarity, designs and shapes. And we
can only expect more of that."