Recycling on the Rise

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The U.S. national recycling rate of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic made an encouraging jump for a fourth straight year as consumers become more aware of the benefits of recycling PET beverage packaging.

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) reported the national recycling rate for PET plastic bottled water containers (0.5 L or 16.9 oz) had improved by 16.42% over the 2006 recycling rate, according to data from two new studies: “2008 Post Consumer PET Bottle Bale Composition Analysis” and “2007 Report on PET Water Bottle Recycling.”

The reports also found that bottled water containers are now the single most recycled item in curbside recycling programs.

“Recycling rates continue to rise while bottle water producers are bringing the amount of plastic per bottle down by lightweighting each plastic container,” said Joe Doss, president and CEO of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA). “But this improvement, while encouraging, reminds us that more needs to be done. It is very clear that the bottled water industry is swiftly headed in the right direction while delivering the convenience, safety and refreshing hydration that made bottled water so popular in the first place.”

The IBWA is a leading association supporter of comprehensive, single-stream recycling programs. The organization points out its members’ plastic bottle containers are 100% recyclable, and, as a co-sponsor of the National Recycling Coalition’s pilot program for improved recycling in Hartford, Conn., IBWA members were gratified when a 50% improvement in recycling was reported.

According to the 2007 NAPCOR nationawide study on water bottle recycling, the recycling rate for water bottles has increased to 23.4% from the 2006 recycling rate of 20.1%.

According to data from an earlier 2006 bale content study for all beverages, the number of PET bottles counted per pound was approximately 12. In 2008, the total number of PET bottles increased to 13.78, a reflection of the increase in water bottle collection, as well as the continued lightweighting of other plastic containers.

“Water bottles are now the most recycling container in curbside programs by weight, and overwhelmingly by number,” according to the 2008 NAPCOR PET analysis report.

PET water bottles now account for 50% of all the PET bottles and containers collected by curbside recycling. This trend was consistent in all curbside bales sampled nationally, with no major shifts observed in any other plastic container category.

NAPCOR attributes the growth in PET recycling rates to new and expanding recycling programs across the U.S., as well as new commercial recovery efforts.

The biggest jump in water bottle collection for recycling was in California, where a state-funded consumer education campaign, emphasizing that water bottles are recyclable, seems to be having the desired effect.

Despite the increase in recycled PET, U.S. reclaimers imported an additional 99.8 million lb of recycled PET from Canada and South America to meet domestic demand for recycled PET.

In tandem with the new NAPCOR data, IBWA tracked the average amount of plastic used in 16.9-oz PET bottles, using published data from the Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC) to determine the lightweighting trend currently being seen in many brands of bottled water. In the year 2000, the average weight of a plastic water bottle was 18.9 g. It has decreased consistently on an annual basis, and, by 2007, the last year BMC has complete data (as of publication), the average weight of a PET water bottle was 13.83 g—more than a 25% decrease.

“Lightweighting PET bottles is the industry’s response to consumer concerns about the environment, but the move is also good for business because lighter-weight bottles require less plastic to produce, saving bottlers in production costs,” Doss said. “But we also need more consumers and municipalities to see the value in recycling. I encourage people to lobby their local governments to increase or expand recycling programs to include ‘public space’ recycling.”

NAPCOR reports that demand for recycled PET has never been stronger. For the first time in history, China purchased more U.S. post-consumer PET bottles than U.S. reclaimers.

“The impacts of this are of no small consequence. U.S. reclaimers have had to look to other countries, particularly in Central and South America for the additional bottles they need to be able to run their plants at high utilization rates,” the NAPCOR report said.

The year “2007 saw a distinct increase in new publicly initiated collection programs, as well as program upgrades and expansions. In the broad sense this reflected citizens’ demand and public desire to be able to do something proactive about the environment, but it was certainly aided by the excellent market conditions for all commodities,” the report said.

Furthermore, policymakers addressing climate change are increasingly realizing that recycling is both an easy and cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the report, all of these factors have brought new energy and context to the debate on how best to increase collection of recyclables— factors that are essential to reinvigorating the PET recycling industry.

Jill Culora is a freelance writer and media consultant to the International Bottled Water Assn. Culora can be reached by e-mail at jculora@bottledwater.org.

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