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Manufacturing a Myth:
The Plastics Recycling Ploy

By Dan Rademacher

Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999

When I moved to Berkeley from a not-very-progressive Boston suburb, I was dismayed to find that this famously daring city accepted only a fraction of the plastic containers that I was used to throwing in my recycling bin. How could a depressed former industrial town in the Northeast collect more mixed plastics from its residents than Berkeley, California, bastion of the environmental movement?

It turns out I wasn't asking the right question: Of course, the goal should be to recycle everything we can, but what happens to the plastic after it is collected? Does it actually get "recycled," returning to where it came from, staying out of the garbage dump? Not according to environmentalists, industry experts, recycling managers, and plastics brokers. Despite collection efforts, only a handful of manufacturers actually take back what they make, and less than two percent of collected plastic gets made into new food containers, like soda bottles. The rest ends up in products like fleece jackets, non-food containers, commercial-grade carpet, plastic lumber, and park benches - or gets thrown out.

Unlike glass, recycled plastic degrades over time so it cannot be indefinitely remanufactured. A bottle can become a jacket, but a jacket can't become a bottle. This phenomenon, known in the industry as "cascading" or "downcycling," has a troubling consequence. It means that all plastic - including the tiny proportion that finds its way into another bottle - "will eventually end up in the landfill," said Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

And that's a problem.

What little plastic recycling there is today is absolutely dwarfed by the manufacture of new plastic. In this decade, plastics production has skyrocketed. From 1995 to 1996 alone, production of all plastic packaging increased by 1 billion pounds. Over the same period, the estimated amount of plastic collected - minus 15 percent for rejects - rose by only 69 million pounds, according to a 1997 report by the Environmental Defense Fund. So, for every one-ton increase in plastics recycling, there was a 14-ton increase in new plastic production. The plastics industry then began limiting its figures to report only the most commonly collected items - bottles and wide-mouth containers like yogurt tubs. Even so, from 1996 to 1997, the trend continued. For every one-ton increase in collection, the industry churned out an 11-ton increase in sales of virgin rigid bottles and containers. And this doesn't even include the plethora of non-container plastic items, from PVC pipe to computer parts.

Apart from taking up landfill space, plastic is petroleum-based, can bear traces of heavy metals, and can contain hazardous additives, including one plasticizer associated with liver cancer and kidney damage in animals [see sidebar below].

In recent years, plastic waste has proliferated wildly with the spread of the plastic beverage bottle. Glass, and to a lesser degree aluminum, have given way to ubiquitous single-serving plastic soda bottles that now flood supermarket shelves. How did it happen? Here's the irony: It was the veneer of recyclability - cultivated by the plastics industry - that led to this explosion.

Chasing Arrows

In the late 1980s, the nation was in a garbage crisis, jostled awake by the image of the Mobro garbage barge floating in various ports, denied access to the nation's already glutted landfills. Plastic recycling seemed necessary and viable. In 1986, Rhode Island became one of the first of many states to enact comprehensive recycling legislation, often including bans on aluminum, plastic bottles, and newspapers in local landfills.

In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) established a set of numerical codes to aid in sorting plastics for recycling. In 1990, the Coca-Cola Company promised to begin making its bottles with post-consumer recycled plastic. Both of these developments would seem to mark significant progress.

But Coke has still not lived up to its pledge. And the codes - three "chasing arrows" surrounding a number as a sign of recyclability - were "deliberately misleading," says Daniel Knapp, director of Berkeley's Urban Ore, in his 1996 report on the plastics industry. In the words of Bill Sheehan, director of the Athens, GA-based GrassRoots Recycling Network: "The plastics industry has wrought intentional confusion with that symbol."

Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic had no system for recycling - no infrastructure to sell it, no markets to buy it, no facilities to remake it. In short, the arrows led nowhere.

In a 1988 newsletter, the industry Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment revealed the real motivation for the deception: "Several states," it wrote in self-congratulation, "have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system."

Sheehan put it this way: "They [packagers] were just getting out of glass, and this plastic had no recycled content, while glass did. [The SPI codes] gave plastic an environmental patina."

Even Mel Weiss, an independent Danville-based plastics broker who insists that he can sell any type of plastic, sees the industry as focused on PR and not at all interested in recycling. As Weiss views it, the American Plastics Council (APC), a trade group representing virgin-resin producers, "won't do anything to support recycling. If they had a choice between selling one pound of virgin and 22 tons of recycled, they'd sell the virgin. All they're doing is masking what they're doing with an expensive ad campaign."

Major industry groups like the APC and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) focus on problems of collection and sorting, problems solved largely through marketing strategies.

"The plastics people have not stepped up to the plate and solved the problem," said Bruce Groulx, operations manager at Tri-Ced Recycling of Hayward and Union City. "The glass industry has. The aluminum industry has. The fiber industry has. They've changed their infrastructure [to deal with recycled content]. Industry after industry has adapted, and the plastics industry hasn't."

When asked about market development, Tim Shestek of the APC said, "We share in those concerns, and we have taken some steps to develop those markets." APC was developing a new website to connect buyers and sellers of post-consumer plastics, he said in September. Pete Dinger, APC's national spokesman, said virgin resin producers had built recycling plants but have since closed them, claiming high labor costs.

Where it Ends Up

Virgin plastic comes in many different types, and goes to many niche markets for remanufacturing, so it is virtually impossible to obtain valid recycling rates. To further complicate the calculation, some amount of collected plastic will always get lost, both to contamination and to questionable domestic and overseas sales. But it's not easy to figure how much.

"The problem with plastics [recycling rates] is that there is no structured methodology," said Tri-Ced's Groulx. "A lot of figures that come out are guesstimates. No one really knows."

Because most manufacturers don't take back their products, there's often little opportunity to sell collected plastic. It is true that the West Coast, California in particular, is blessed with domestic and overseas markets that have made recycling of #1 and #2 plastics - soda bottles and milk jugs - somewhat easier. But even here, metals and paper are the real money-makers.

"Plastics is the least profitable part of the business," said Kevin McCarthy, regional recycling manager at Waste Management Inc.'s Davis Street sorting center in San Leandro, "and it may not even be fair to say that it is profitable at all."

Without markets, plastics recycling rates in California continue to fall - from a peak of 24.6 percent in 1995, to 23.2 percent in 1996, to 21.9 percent in 1997, says Rick Best, of Californians Against Waste. The outlook for improvement is not good, with prices for recycled plastic much lower than the abnormal highs of 1995, which resulted from huge Chinese demand for fiber-grade plastic after an extensive cotton crop failure.

Like McCarthy's operation, many recyclers will collect plastic only to meet contractual requirements from government agencies. The impetus to collect certain types of plastic comes from residents. But these plastics often have no market for reuse. Recyclers call it "junk plastic," stuff that gets collected only "because residents wanted it collected because they watched the commercials on TV extolling the recyclability of plastic," said one recycling official who insisted on anonymity.

In the last decade the same scenario has happened all over the country, the official says: A plastics industry representative, often affiliated with the APC, comes in and says there's a market for some uncollected plastic, like polystyrene or wide-mouth tubs. The city jumps in with both feet, only to have the unstable market dry up shortly thereafter.

It's true that there are some relatively steady "niche" or "boutique" markets in the recycling landscape. One of the largest users of recycled plastics in the Bay Area is Epic Plastics of Richmond, which makes garden edging. Each month, the company processes about 700,000 pounds of mostly #2 and #4 post-consumer and post-industrial plastic - "pretty large as far as recycled plastic is concerned," said Epic spokesperson Nick Cherbak, "but not so much as far as plastic manufacturers are concerned."

But most types of collected plastic are a tough sell. Groulx said he is sometimes able to bundle less desirable plastics with the more marketable ones, discounting the better plastic for the hassle of the extra load. End-users often have their own buyers for the less marketable plastics, says Groulx: "Sometimes I suspect they landfill it, but that's a question we don't ask."

Groulx searches trade journals and the Internet. He asks trade groups about new markets. Occasionally, he just can't find a market. Only then does Tri-Ced ask for permission to landfill plastics. "There are organizations that have access to landfills and transfer stations . . . and it [collected plastic] just disappears. But we don't operate that way."

Overseas sales are common. "It's hard to tell where that ends up," said Tom Padia, a director at the Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board. One official speculated that international shipments of mixed plastics might be cherry-picked for marketable types, and the rest incinerated. As Groulx points out, this is difficult to prove: Eager to get rid of their plastics, recycling organizations have no impetus to look too far into the matter.

The Core Issue: An Open Loop

Plastics sold for recycling are divided into two broad groups: high grade, which is very clean, has minimal contamination with other types of plastic, and is made into containers; and low or fiber grade, which is made into much less demanding products like jacket fill, fleece, carpets, and industrial plastic strapping.

The vast majority of recycled plastics is fiber grade. Data from the Washington DC-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) show that, in 1996, 77.6 percent of recycled plastic went to fiber-grade non-container applications, 20.6 percent to non-food containers, and just 1.7 percent to new food containers.

Plastic has what's called a heat history. Each time it gets recycled - actually "downcycled" - its polymer chains break down, weakening the plastic and making it less suitable for high-end use. The widely-used #1 polyethylene teraphthalate (PET), for example, degrades after about five melting cycles, APR co-chairperson David Cornell said. Paper has the same problem to the same extent or more, but with important differences: it doesn't come from petroleum, doesn't have to come from trees, and ultimately composts.

Cascading or downcycling does reduce markets for virgin fiber-grade resin, but, unlike glass and aluminum, plastic is simply incapable of withstanding closed-loop recycling processes.

The problem becomes clear in the case of Coca-Cola, the world's largest soda maker, with half the global market. Although Coke produces over 20 million plastic soda bottles every day in the US, none of them contains recycled plastic, according to the GrassRoots Recycling Network. Nor is Coke held responsible for their disposal.

Instead of finding ways for manufacturers like Coke to close the loop on their waste, the APC touts the recyclability of plastic, along with its significant weight benefit over glass (which allows some transportation fuel savings); on the other side, manufacturers like Coke fight against any legislation mandating the reuse of plastics that so many Americans diligently put in collection bins.

In dealing with runaway plastic production, communities are saddled with an unfunded garbage mandate. Manufacturers produce difficult-to-recycle containers ultimately bound for the landfill, encourage collection efforts without taking back products, and then wash their hands of the situation. We use plastic and drop it off or put it out on the curb, and then wash our hands of it. Then it may be sold, but rarely to bottle makers and not at prices that make plastic recycling economically sustainable. So Coke pumps out about another seven billion virgin plastic bottles each year. The process starts again, never closing the loop.

Solutions

The GrassRoots Recycling Network is campaigning to push Coke to use recycled plastic bottles, and the campaign has had some important victories, including local resolutions in communities across the country, including Alameda County and Los Angeles. They urge Coke to honor its 1990 promise [see below for contact information].

The FDA has approved over 50 different methods of manufacturing post-consumer plastic bottles, including one for 100-percent post-consumer material. One company, Continental PET, has begun large-scale manufacturing of layered virgin and postconsumer bottles for Gatorade and Verifine. But because of the downcycling problem, even the material in a 100 percent postconsumer plastic bottle will be dumped or incinerated eventually.

In California, Senate Bill 1110, pending in the Assembly, would "assign some responsibility to the food and cosmetics industry to create markets for recycled plastics," said Rick Best, director of bill-sponsor Californians Against Waste. The law would end the exemption of food and cosmetics containers and mandate a 35 percent recycling rate by 2005. If that goal is not met, manufacturers could make their packaging lighter, make specific arrangements with a recycler for their packaging, or start using 35 percent post-consumer plastic. These options were added after industry opposition, ostensibly because of food safety hazards. But the bill's flexibility leaves no mandatory use of post-consumer plastic.

Germany's Green Dot program, begun in 1991 and fully implemented in 1993, is a more thorough form of manufacturer's accountability. This legislation, the world's most progressive, requires manufacturers to take cradle-to-grave responsibility for their packaging. Nationwide, manufacturers contract for curbside collection with one private company, Duales System Deutschland (DSD), which then grants green-dot certification, declaring that the bottle will be collected. This takes the financial burden off local governments, putting it squarely on the shoulders of manufacturers. But it still doesn't ensure closed-loop recycling.

Is Recycled Plastic Good Plastic?

Even the most thorough plastics legislation doesn't address the deeper question: should we be using plastics at all?

Screw-cap plastic bottles are arguably more convenient than aluminum cans that can't be resealed. And one advantage that the industry can claim for plastic over glass is lightness and greater fuel economy in shipping. But this assumes that products must be shipped over long distances. In the heyday of glass soda bottles, bottlers distributed their wares locally. According to the 1994 book Case Reopened: Reassessing Refillable Bottles by INFORM's David Saphire, a 1960 national survey found 4,400 glass bottlers distributing soft drink bottles through local networks. In 1990, after three decades of regional concentration, just 773 bottlers remained. PET had captured 30 percent of the market.

Toxicity is also a problem. Although plastic is a petroleum derivative, it contains more than just processed oil. As NAPCOR's spokesman Don Knease points out, the raw materials of glass - sand, potash, and limestone - are "essentially free." Plastic manufacture, on the other hand, is terribly complex, requiring many possibly hazardous additives [see the sidebar "What is Plastic?"].

The dioxin dangers of PVC are fairly well known, and Greenpeace has conducted an in-depth study showing that PVC recycling and incineration are unsustainable because of hazardous byproducts like hydrochloric acid and many other possible carcinogens and hormone disruptors.

But even relatively safe PET - the stuff of Coke bottles - might pose problems. PET often contains additives including plasticizers, substances that make plastics more pliable. They belong to an amorphous category of synthetic chemicals - those not conclusively proven to harm humans, and so presumed safe. Nevertheless, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, links one such plasticizer, diethyl phthalate, to liver tumors, birth defects, and lower fertility rates in animals.

Alternatives

No material is sustainable at present rates of consumption, certainly not disposable packaging. But, in a world with less packaging, an excellent alternative for many products is the old standby: glass, especially refillable glass. Current glass manufacturing uses at most 50 percent post-consumer content, but much higher levels are technologically feasible. Unlike the refillable plastic that has been tried in Europe, glass can withstand the heat necessary for complete sterilization. For those applications where plastic is necessary, researchers all over the world are working on truly biodegradable polymers, many from renewable sources like soy, the object of research at the University of Iowa. The Dutch International Center for Agro-based Materials even holds out the possibility that such "biopolymers" might be made from agricultural waste materials.

Were such plastics to replace our current oil-based varieties, plastics recycling might become the most fundamental recycling of all: composting.

[SIDEBAR] What is Plastic?

The American Plastics Council (APC) distributes a brochure called "Plastics Make It Happen," and like many slick marketing brochures, it contains a kernel of truth. Plastics are so varied that they can indeed make a lot of things happen.

The APC brochure defines plastic as any material that can be heated and molded and then hold its shape once cooled. There are natural plastics like animal horn, tortoiseshell, and amber; and then there are semi-natural plastics, like vulcanized rubber, made by processing latex with sulfur. Another kind of plastic has boomed since World War II: synthetic polymers, from soda-bottle PET to polystyrene to very rigid polycarbonates.

Synthetic polymers-very long, carbon-based molecules-are usually made from petroleum. Many also contain chemicals ranging from chlorine to plasticizer additives, which make plastics more pliable. Greenpeace reports that some plastics can even contain traces of heavy metals left over from processing.

According to John Harte and others' 1991 book Toxics A to Z, some of these additives can be hazardous because they do not fully bond with the polymer and remain fat-soluble. For example, long-term exposure to the fat-soluble plasticizer DEHP [di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate] has been associated with birth defects, kidney damage, and liver cancer in rats and mice, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Not very reassuring when so many cooking oils come in plastic bottles.

For more info on the Coke campaign see the GrassRoots Recycling Network's website at www.grrn.org, or call GRRN's Bill Sheehan at (706) 613-7121.

 

Dan Rademacher is Terrain's assistant editor.  This article was printed in the Winter 1999 issue of Terrain, the quarterly published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California.  Do not reprint without permission of the author.  For information on the magazine, email terrain@ecologycenter.org or call (510) 548-2235. Laird Townsend Editor, Terrain Magazine.



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