Plastic Inconvenient, Not Economical to Recycle : Environment: There’s too much trash and not enough demand. Different chemical compositions make sorting expensive.


Like the middle-aged businessman who whispers the famous “just one word” to Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” the plastics industry asserts that there’s a bright future in recycling.

But environmentalists and recycling officials are about as cynical as the Hoffman college grad who ignores the career advice.

Major cities like Philadelphia and Newark, N.J., have stopped recycling plastic. Most everything from mustard bottles to yogurt cups to meat wrap still is dumped or burned. Critics want government action to accelerate progress.

“Plastic is the bane of most recyclers’ existence,” says Brooke Nash, executive director of Solana Recyclers Inc. in San Diego, which collects recyclables from four Southern California cities.


“Cities want programs to divert as much material from their landfills, but it’s a money-loser all around.”

The problem is simple economics: Too much trash, weak demand. But the solution isn’t simple.

Curbside programs inspired by environmental fervor have spread to more than 4,000 communities. Forty states require comprehensive recycling.

But the programs were established without knowing whether companies would embrace trash as a raw material for new products.


Most didn’t. The lack of demand drove down what communities get for an average ton of household trash from $100 a ton in 1988 to $35 a ton last year.

The problem is especially acute for plastics. Despite the push by government to recycle, U.S. factories have actually increased output of plastic made of virgin materials--oil and natural gas--in recent years.

The tumbling virgin prices depressed prices of recycled plastic resins. It can cost communities $1,000 a ton collecting, sorting and trucking plastic, up to 10 times what they can get for it.

Still, recycled resins cost 10% more than virgin plastic, giving manufacturers little reason to use plastic trash in new products.


“There’s regulatory mandates to divert this material from the waste stream but no corresponding mandate to use it,” said Jane Witheridge, vice president of strategic planning for WMX Technologies Inc., the nation’s largest collector of curbside recyclables.

There are impressive success stories, and officials partly credit the diligence of millions of Americans in sorting household trash for curbside collection. Much eventually ends up recycled.

For example, the recycling rate is about 70% for aluminum cans, nearly half of steel cans, 43% for newspapers and about one-third for all glass packages.

Some other rubbish also has recycling problems. Clear and colored glass, for example, create sorting headaches because they cannot be mixed.


The laggard is plastic. About 6.5% of plastics packaging was recycled in 1992, the plastics industry says. But the majority of that is plastic soda bottles, largely due to state bottle laws requiring reuse.

The second largest category includes translucent milk and water jugs.

The overall situation has created huge backlogs. In Los Angeles and New York City, for example, towers of plastic garbage rise from recyclers’ processing plants.

Further inconveniencing recyclers are the same properties that make plastic so convenient to consumers--lightness and versatility.


In Philadelphia, officials dropped plastic trash from their curbside program in November, 1992, after figuring it took up half the space on its garbage trucks but accounted for only 5% of the weight. That meant extra overtime for drivers.

“We were driving around with a lot of air,” said Tom Klein, director of recycling education and promotion in Philadelphia.

“The point isn’t whether it’s recyclable or not--my sofa is recyclable--the point is whether it can be collected and recycled in a cost-effective way,” he said.

Moreover, plastics have different chemical compositions that make sorting expensive. Some packages have more than one plastic, another sorting problem.


The plastics industry says it is promoting recycling with a $1.2 billion investment between 1990 and 1995.

In one innovation, manufacturers now make plastic soda bottles with pinched bottoms that stand on their own, eliminating the need for a rigid base of different plastic.

Heinz’s ketchup bottles were redesigned using PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, a more readily recyclable resin used in soda bottles.

But the environmental community says plastics manufacturers--which includes oil companies that drill the oil used in plastic they make--has spent far more to process virgin materials to meet surging demand for plastic packaging.


“The economics don’t make sense and we believe that at the root of this, fundamentally, manufacturers have to take responsibility for their packaging,” said Lance King, outreach director for Californians Against Waste in Sacramento.

“If the private sector doesn’t take the actions, we believe it will lead to mandatory rules,” King said, referring to state legislation requiring a minimum amount of recycled resins in new plastic.

Indeed, cheaper ways exist to dispose of plastic. In some parts of the country, there is a surplus of garbage-fueled incinerators.

Yet people prefer to recycle over burying or burning trash. Many companies created to exploit the recycling fervor have been disappointed.


Milwaukee-based Poly-Anna Plastics, for instance, thought it had the perfect formula to success: Sell plastic recycling bins, made of old laundry detergent bottles, to communities for curbside programs.

But local governments didn’t bite because Poly-Anna bins cost more than those made without garbage. “We’ve lost most of the big bids,” said Poly-Anna president Marty Forman.

North American Recycling Systems was forced to shut its Fort Edward, N.Y., plastic processing factory last year because it was too expensive to operate, said chairman Robert Barber.

Envirothene of Chino, Calif., the largest plastics processor in the West, is just breaking even after three years of operation because it can’t get loans to buy more equipment and generate more revenues, said chief executive Michael Kopulsky.


Even established companies have pulled back. Wellman Inc., the nation’s largest processor of old plastic soda bottles, stopped taking other packages like milk and juice jugs because they weren’t profitable.

Some communities claim broader success. Minneapolis sells recycled packages like margarine tubs and yogurt containers to recyclers that make them into new packages, carpeting and landscaping bricks. About 100 communities in western Massachusetts also sort and collect less commonly recycled plastics.

Yet these and other pilot programs depend on government and industry subsidies, compared to markets for glass, aluminum and paper that are more financially self-sufficient.

One sign of progress: More products that increase demand for trash. Patagonia sells a polyester sweater made from 100% used soda bottles. Procter & Gamble Co. makes liquid detergent bottles from 100% plastic trash.


The federal government has granted $1.2 million for developing technologies for help put more recovered materials in consumer products.

“It’s kind of hand-holding to get people to use recycled materials. There hasn’t been a major national effort to do this yet,” said Kathleen Meade, spokeswoman for the National Recycling Coalition, a group of business and government recyclers.