Plastic fantastic bottle recycling

How can this be? The supply of used water bottles isn't keeping up with demand.

Published February 22, 2007 9:00PM (EST)

Intrigued by the news that IKEA plans to start charging its American customers 5 cents for each plastic bag, I started doing some research into the global plastics industry. But I was brought up short by a statistic that, at first glance, defied comprehension. In 1995, nearly 40 percent of all plastic PET bottles sold in the United States were recycled. Ten years later, in 2005, the figure was only 23 percent.

The vast majority of water and plastic soda bottles consumed in the world are made of PET, aka polyethylene terephthalate. And perhaps contrary to expectations, this is one petroleum byproduct that is eminently recyclable. Indeed, and here's a second baffling peculiarity, producers of ground-up recycled PET "flake" cannot keep up with demand. Prices per pound are strong, propelled by Chinese buyers who will buy all the flake or bales of flattened bottles that they can get, to turn into pseudo-polyester and other materials.

So, we are recycling a smaller percentage of plastic bottles than 10 years ago, and yet supply of what is lovingly referred to as "post-consumer PET" can't keep up with demand. What's wrong with this picture? Why hasn't the market solved this problem?

The answer to the first question turns out to be simple. A handy chart provided by the National Association for PET Container Resources reveals that in 1995, the U.S. recycled 775 million pounds of PET bottles, out of a total of 1.95 billion pounds of bottles estimated to be on retail shelves. The actual total poundage recycled over the next 10 years stayed more or less the same, albeit finally beginning to tick up steadily in 2004. But the total amount of bottles produced more than doubled, jumping to nearly 5 billion pounds by 2005. Those of us who do recycle aren't necessarily recycling less as the years go by, we just haven't been able to keep up with the deluge.

But now that we've answered the first question, there's still the second. With so many bottles available to be recycled, why can't we satisfy demand? One reason is that we don't have enough installed capacity to clean the bottles and chop them up into flakes. But another is that voluntary programs for recycling plastic don't appear to work too well. Maybe most people are like me, and didn't realize until today how recyclable the bottles are. Or maybe they don't live in one of the 11 states that mandate refundable deposits for PET bottles.

Because if you want to know why PET bottle recycling rates started to rise again in recent years, the answer appears to be simple: California. In 2004, California enacted a law that increased redemption values for PET containers. As a result, PET recycling in California surged.

Strange: Legislation and financial incentives make a difference! If government properly sets up a system that encourages people, whether you, me or the neighborhood poacher, to ferret out those bottles and turn them in, we can reduce landfill waste and clean up our neighborhoods.

Which brings us back to IKEA. Five cents for a bag may not seem like a big deal, but according to IKEA, a similar measure in the U.K. has already reduced consumption of plastic bags there by 95 percent. Raising the price of a bag 5 cents, it seems, offers just as much incentive as offering a 5 cent refund for recycling a plastic bottle.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. is woefully backward on the plastic bag front. We can argue endlessly over the relative life-cycle assessments of paper vs. plastic, but if you're a sea creature chewing on an IKEA bag, or you've got a bunch of plastic bags stuck in the trees in your back yard, your opinion is likely pretty simple: Plastic bags suck. Much of the world agrees. As Reuters alerts us in its coverage of the IKEA announcement, Rwanda and Bangladesh are both far ahead of the U.S. in reducing plastic bag use. (Thanks to Rob Elliott at Globalisation and the Environment for the link.) And few countries can hold a candle to Taiwan, which since 2003 has imposed severe fines on retail outlets and restaurants that give customers plastic bags or cutlery, or Styrofoam boxes.

There's a nice historical paradox there: Taiwan started climbing up the industrial ladder on the back of its plastics industry -- making cheap plastic goods for export to the world's cost-conscious consumers. Many a landfill across the globe is filled with Taiwanese plastic. But Taiwan itself is a crowded island -- not so much landfill room to be had. So the King of Plastics banned plastic from its own realm. Sweet.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization How The World Works Ikea