For industry professionals and others, this is an exceptionally interesting period in plastics and packaging.
The accelerating, ever-changing landscape in these markets yields presents numerous hurdles met by a continuing wave of technical innovation. The result is a kind of yin and yang dualism—opposite or contrary forces that may actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world (Source: Wikipedia).
To help plastics professionals gain an understanding of the dynamics and issues involved, PlasticsToday is drawing on the expertise of industry influencers who can present a big picture assessment. This occasional series debuts in an interview with Laura Stewart, Communications Director, National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), based in Charlotte, NC.
What’s the state of the industry for PET and recycling?
Stewart: PET is still a growing market. Though the recycling rate over the last decade hasn’t really shifted much, we have seen a marked shift in domestically collected material recycled and used here in the US. While that does have a lot to do with China’s National Sword policy, it speaks to the strength of domestic markets in the U.S. and Canada—that there has been a continual increase of total postconsumer PET material used in end markets including fiber, bottles, thermoforms and strapping since 2015.
What’s been the biggest change since NAPCOR was formed in 1987?
Stewart: Curbside recycling was still in its infancy and 2-Liter bottles were more common and there were many challenges in getting the PET bottle in the recycling bin that needed to be overcome. NAPCOR not only worked with municipalities, but also recyclers and manufacturers to remove those hurdles.
What’s been the biggest change the past 10 years?
Stewart: Since 2010 we have seen a shift towards convenience, and increased prevalence of smaller PET bottles. In 2017 for the first time, sales of water packaged in PET overtook that of carbonated soft drinks, which means the average PET bottle is lighter than it used to be. With improved technology, light weighting was rampant in the mid-2010s, but we’ve started to see that plateau.
How have PET recycling percent rates trended over that time?
Stewart: The PET recycling rate has been steady and unchanged over the past decade—it peaked in 2013 at 31.2%.
Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was significant awareness around the 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. We saw that in the PET recycling rate, which was close to 40% in 1995, but arguably some ground has been lost since then in public enthusiasm for recycling.
Programs are underway now such as those managed by the Recycling Partnership, ACC’s Every Bottle Back and now our new Positively PET campaign, which all aim to re-engage and educate consumers about the benefits of recycling, and how to do it correctly.
Where do U.S. recycling efforts fall short?
Stewart: Two factors are key from our perspective. A large percentage of the population only has access to curbside recycling as opposed to deposit programs here in this U.S., versus Northern European countries where deposit systems are more prevalent.
There are also socio-economic factors to consider. In countries where there is a lower net worth, there is more incentive to recover materials like PET, for example in Lithuania, which was recently featured in an article on this topic from The Economist.
What’s the biggest issue facing the industry in 2020?
Stewart: Right now, it’s access to postconsumer material—we will continue to see strong market demand with lack of feedstock. Beverage companies have corporate commitments to use more postconsumer content, but without an increase in the amount of PET recovered, there simply won’t be enough material to go around.
Another issue is what we refer to as virtue signaling—there is a lot of legislative activity across the U.S. banning plastic products of various types. Without considering lifecycle impacts of plastic products, which often offer significant savings in greenhouse gas emissions versus plastic packaging alternatives, these bans may have unintended consequences—ultimately moving us towards options that are in fact more harmful to the environment.
Next: Misconceptions, challenges and frustrations