Recycled PET: Should it be Used in Making New Bottles?

This point-counterpoint presents two sides to the issue of whether beverage container makers should be obligated to use recycled PET

January 22, 2001

Many recycling advocates are urging plastic bottle makers to use more recycled PET content. But will a rush to do so adversely affect the recycling market? Two essays that originally appeared in a State of Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance newsletter offer contrary answers to that question.

The Case Against More Recycled PET in Containers
Joan Archer, President,
Minnesota Soft Drink Association

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles don’t need to be recycled back into PET bottles. Market forces that affect the value of recycled PET are diverse. They include, but are not limited to:

  • the cost of competing raw materials and virgin resin
  • the availability and value of off-spec resin
  • the quality, quantity, and yield of the material collected
  • costs associated with collection, transportation, sorting, cleaning and washing;
  • and a diversity of end uses.

    A proclamation that soft drink PET containers should be recycled back into their original use is a philosophical point of view—one that to date has not been supported by data showing superior environmental benefit or improved economics.

    When soft drink bottlers used significant levels of recycled PET in bottles in the early 1990s, the value of baled bottles was in the range of six to 10 cents per pound, falling within the historical average. When baled bottle values hit their historic high in 1995 (in the range of 20 to 25 cents per pound nationally and as high as 32 to 35 cents in the Midwest), soft drink bottlers postponed using recycled PET for more than two years.

    Mandatory use of a recovered material back into the same product stifles innovation. Bottle-to-bottle recycling uses more energy and financial resources to sufficiently clean material to meet quality and safety specifications than is required by carpet and fiber applications. In recent economic cycles, bottle manufacturers have had to out-bid other end users such as fiber and carpet manufacturers if they wanted to secure material for food grade bottle-to-bottle applications.

    Recently, the newsletter INCPEN reported that Dr. Helmut Schnurer of the German Environment Ministry warned against requiring the use of secondary materials in new products as a means of increasing recycling. “This type of state intervention is characteristic of centrally planned economies and therefore hardly compatible with market mechanisms.

    Binding targets concerning the use of certain quantities and types of secondary raw materials . . . during the manufacture of new goods impair competition and block innovation.” He continued by saying, “[Targets] would require another involved administrative control and supervisory regime to discourage abuse.”

    Recycled PET is a commodity with many end uses. If recovered soft drink PET was mandated or artificially limited to being recycled only back into itself, businesses that currently use recycled PET would lose an important raw material source. Emerging entrepreneurs looking at recycled PET for insulation, high-quality merchandise, uniforms and so on would be locked out of the process.

    What should be done? Extend and revitalize promotion of existing collection programs; improve performance and yield of existing recycling facilities; increase research into development of comprehensive collection strategies and new end uses for recycled PET including, but not limited to, bottle-to-bottle applications by all participants in the value chain.

    It is important to note that the soft drink industry does support “broadcycling” of PET into various end uses. Currently, there are a number of industry initiatives under development, ranging from uniforms and transport packaging to bottle-to-bottle technologies that will help expand the end-use capacity for recycled PET. For bottle-to-bottle recycling to be sustainable, it must meet stringent quality standards and achieve regulatory non-objection. It also cannot cost our consumers more money.

    The Case For More Recycled PET in Containers
    Anne Morse, Solid Waste Officer,
    Winona County, Minnesota

    Yes, we should be using recycled PET in bottle applications. Although it may not be obvious to all, there’s been a sea change in the world of waste.

    I’m referring to the understanding that there must and will be shared responsibility for evolving solutions by all those involved in creating what we’ve historically called “waste.” This means that manufacturers, retailers, consumers, recyclers and haulers will have a hand in the evolution and implementation of practices that maximize the value of our natural resources.

    While some remain skeptical of this concept of stewardship, the skeptics are swimming against not just a current, but a wave of public sentiment. Stewardship of our resources is the future, and the reuse of plastics in their highest possible applications is key.

    Foremost among the reasons to use recycled content PET in bottles is the fact that the soft drink industry is responsible for generating 22 billion PET plastic bottles every year. Of these, only 35.6% are recovered for recycling, and a whopping 64.4% are burned or buried! By using just 25% recycled PET in their containers, the industry that is responsible for the creation of this packaging can have a hand in improving demand for it, in the form of stable and strong markets for recycled PET.

    It is the type of demand, however, that is the issue. When industry claims that demand for recycled PET is strong, they are speaking of recycled PET for fiber (carpet and strapping) and coatings, which pay substantially less than bottle markets. High-end bottle markets consistently return two to five cents more per pound to recyclers. With current scrap prices in the range of six to 10 cents per pound from fiber markets, bottle markets would increase the scrap price by 33% to 50%!

    Recycled PET, like virgin PET, is a commodity, subject to the laws of supply and demand. If demand for recycled PET increases with its use in bottles, then its value will likely increase. And, with an increase in price, the soft drink industry will finally have a direct financial interest in supporting increased recovery of its bottles. Our state and local governments all have recycling goals to meet.

    The steel, paper and aluminum industries all have recovery goals. Why not the plastics industry? Given that states with deposit systems have documented 75% recovery rates, why not a goal of 50%? Perhaps these issues wouldn’t arise if cost weren’t a consideration. But the days of the open checkbook of the American taxpayer are long gone, and government is subject to propositions and levy limits that make the cost of services a determining factor. Our recycling programs literally can’t absorb the results of any and all profit-driven marketing decisions. According to industry studies, the processing cost of PET plastics has increased by 46% from 1992 to 1997.

    The message from local governments is this: our commitment to recycle whatever consumer packaging hits the marketplace has come to an end. The responsibility for making recycling work efficiently is today a shared one. Let’s all rise to the occasion.

    These point-counterpoint essays were reprinted with permission from The Resource, a publication of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance,