Factors contributing to industry challenges included changing export markets and a 3.6% drop in material collected for recycling. Ongoing increases in single-stream collection also led to increased contamination of recyclables in the near term, said the report. In addition, growth in the use of plastic bottles was offset by continuing progress in lightweighting and increased use of concentrates with smaller, lighter bottles.
In 2017, PET bottles collected for recycling decreased by 27 million pounds. The collection of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles, which includes bottles for milk, household cleaners and detergents, fell by 70.3 million pounds (6.3%) to just over one billion pounds for the year. The recycling rate for HDPE bottles slipped from 33.4% to 31.1%.
“Plastic bottle recycling is proving to be resilient in the face of short-term challenges,” said Steve Alexander, president of APR. “The recycling industry is responding in kind, with some investing in increased U.S. infrastructure, a clear sign of a positive long-term outlook. These investments underscore the need for continued consumer participation and convenient access to recycling programs.”
The low rates of recycling could put a damper on the use of recycled materials that are needed to help bottle makers reduce the amount of virgin resin and contribute to consumers’ desire for “green” bottles made with recycled material.
Europe does a bit better than the United States when it comes to collecting and recycling PET. A 2017 survey of the European PET recycling industry, released on Dec. 19, 2018, shows that 58.2% of PET bottles were collected out of 3,308,300 tons of PET bottles placed on the European market in 2018. “PET collection and recycling rates are exceptional in the plastics packaging industry, which shows the important role of the material in the circular economy,” summarized Christian Crépet, Executive Director of Petcore Europe.
The WSJ article noted that while many bottlers of water are using a percentage of recycled PET in their bottles, consumers want 100% recycled bottles. That isn’t possible for several reasons, including the fact that plastic loses its structural integrity and clarity after being recycled numerous times. That is why virgin resin is combined with a percentage of recycled material to add eco-friendliness while maintaining structural properties.
Growing concern over waste plastic and a heightened ongoing war against plastic is resulting in many consumers shifting away from single-use water bottles toward reusable ones, primarily metal and plastic, since glass is too fragile. Additionally, as Fact.MR pointed out, “Metal and glass are costlier than plastic, which is why a majority of manufacturers in the reusable water bottles market are choosing plastic as a primary raw material,” said the report. “This also enables reusable water bottle manufacturers to reduce the production cost and maintain competitive prices.”
Talk of collecting more PET water bottles to increase recycling rates by implementing deposit schemes arises from time to time. Paying consumers to return their plastic water bottles to the store might work as an incentive to consumers. It worked with glass soda bottles back in the 1950s and 1960s. It works today with glass milk bottles from local dairies; however, you pay a $2 deposit when you buy the milk, which is refunded when you return the bottle. Two dollars is a large enough amount to serve as an incentive. Five cents was a nice amount in the 1950s, and finding a glass soda bottle or two in the ditches along roadways meant trading a bottle for a Snickers bar . . . or another bottle of soda! What is the deposit value of a PET water bottle? Would it be enough to encourage people to take their water bottles back to the store?