blue pet bottles crushed
Roman Milert |

PET supply tight, prices rising

Despite record-high PET bale prices, one reprocessor says bale quality has not improved.

May 19, 2022

A bottle-to-bottle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) reprocessor based in the Midwest says scrap supply remains tight, with bale prices at record highs as of the start of May. The rise in demand and pricing is partly related to recycled-content mandates in the European Union, she says. 

“Currently, the European market is very tight, which is impacting any imports into the U.S. as product gets diverted to Europe, where pricing is higher than the U.S.,” the PET reclaimer says. 

Despite the record-high bale prices, she says her company has seen minimal improvements in bale yield. 

Demand for recycled PET has pushed its pricing higher than that of virgin PET, the recycler says, which also is at record highs. 

“PET has skyrocketed, while PE/PP (polyethylene/polypropylene) has held its own nicely,” a thermoplastic recycler based on the West Coast says. 

He adds that the availability of injection-grade high-density polyethylene (HDPE) has tightened, as well. 

“There is a concern that with such high inflation, at some point demand for products has to come down,” the source on the West Coast says. “Time will tell. I feel when end users start thinking they can secure cheaper material in the near future, they also buy less or only what they must have to keep going.” 

In the meantime, he says, domestic demand remains healthy, with regrind and recycled pellets moving well. 

The tight supply is in part because of low collection rates in the U.S. Most major categories of plastics recovered for recycling in 2020, the most recent year data are available for, decreased compared with 2019, according to the “2020 U.S. Post-consumer Plastic Recycling Data Report,” which was sponsored by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), the Foundation for Plastic Recycling, The Recycling Partnership and the U.S. Plastics Pact. Stina Inc., Sonoma, California, compiled the report based on surveys conducted by the company and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Charlotte, North Carolina.

The PET bottle recycling rate declined 1.2 percentage points in 2020 from 2019, reaching 27.1 percent, while the HDPE bottle recycling rate fell 2.1 percentage points to 28.8 percent.

“We need more supply,” Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Washington-based APR, says in the news release announcing the report’s availability. “Our industry faces significant challenges that require immediate solutions. We need to focus our efforts on technologies that are up and running today. Mechanical recyclers have the capacity to process more material but lack the supply to meet the current demand for postconsumer resin. Expanding and streamlining recycling collection programs, less confusion with labeling and reducing contamination through design for recyclability should be key priorities.”

Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, says the report “shows that we need investment in the U.S. recycling system to boost the recycling rate for all materials, including plastics.”

In addition to supply, transportation remains difficult to secure and prices are high, the reprocessor in the Midwest says, in part because of record fuel charges. “We are booking loads further in advance and paying more, although we are getting record numbers of inquiries from new freight vendors.”

She says trucking into Canada is difficult to secure and is two-to-three times more expensive than it was six months ago.

“Bulk transportation is much tighter,” the PET reprocessor says.

The recycler based on the West Coast says transportation issues have eased somewhat. “Rates are not as low as we’d like,” he says, adding that availability has improved as the “frenetic pace of demand on [the] trucking end of things has cooled off some.”