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PET is not to Blame for Recycling Plant Fires

November 22, 2022

Today's guest blog is courtesy of NAPCOR. The original post can be read here.

As NAPCOR continues to make progress in proactively shaping the narrative about PET on one front, we also take a strong defensive stand against stories that clearly don’t get it right.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in this position all too frequently. Memorably, last November the Washington Post ran the story of Alaska Airlines’ switch to boxed water. The decision was based on a deeply flawed LCA study that was not compliant with ISO standards and tailored to produce a specific desired outcome. In situations like this—when all plastics are treated alike in the media, or when the positive attributes of an alternative packaging material are exaggerated—PET takes more of an indirect hit. In the case of Alaska Airlines, we responded with truths outlined in this blog post.

This month NAPCOR defended a more targeted attack on PET, after ABC News assigned blame for more frequent fires at recycling plants with the assertion that “the majority of the combustible build-up at facilities is polyethylene terephthalate plastic, better known as PET.” The story references millions of tons of plastic bottles “amassing” at recycling facilities, positioning PET as the main cause of dangerous and costly fires. “Most consumers believe [PET] can be recycled, but the majority of it is sitting in recycling facilities where experts say it is at risk of catching fire,” states the author. But the plain reality shown by NAPCOR’s annual data (including the very report cited by the article) is that the majority of PET collected in the U.S. consistently flows to North American end markets for use in manufacturing new products. So it’s clear that most PET bottles are not “sitting”—they are being processed into a valuable recycled feedstock.

Other false or misleading statements which we can refute, and deserve correction, include:

  • “Previously, the primary buyer for PET plastic was China, but it issued an import ban on plastic waste in early 2018.” China has never been the primary buyer for PET collected in the U.S. We can illustrate that only a fraction of collected PET bottles have been exported in recent decades, and exports were already on a path of rapid decline prior to the National Sword policy coming into effect (see the chart below). In 2020—our most recent year of data—the percentage of recycled PET (rPET) bottles purchased by export markets was 11%, slightly above the lowest levels recorded, only because Canada and Mexico have taken in increasing quantities of U.S. bottles. In today’s market, postconsumer PET is extremely valuable to North American converters, many of which are aiming to honor recycled content commitments or mandates in creating new bottles, thermoforms and textiles.

Percentage of recycled bottles chart

  • “More than 82 million metric tons of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is produced globally each year to make single-use beverage bottles, packaging, clothing, and carpets, and it is one of the largest sources of plastic waste.” This statement fails to distinguish between PET resin used for packaging applications and polyester fiber used in textiles. While the same PET molecule is used in both settings, citing this number without proper context is misleading to the reader, because on a global basis, the amount of PET/polyester used in fiber applications is more than double that of PET resin used in packaging (which is the focus of this article).
  • “Enck says more often, PET plastics are recycled for one-time uses such as plastic decking or clothing.” Plastic decking is not a major end market for PET bottles (at a maximum, it could possibly account for less than 2% of end-market usage), which points to Judith Enck’s lack of credibility on this topic, other credentials notwithstanding. More importantly, it is unfair to paint durable products that can last for many years as having “one-time” usefulness. An article of clothing that can be worn and washed hundreds of times or a carpet that can withstand decades of wear and tear can hardly be compared with a disposable item.

 We can’t argue that the U.S. PET recycling rate is too low, as it is for many materials—relative to other industrialized nations, the U.S. is a low performer in recycling rates for all commodities (including glass and aluminum). On a global basis, nearly 60% of PET is recycled, which demonstrates that the lack of U.S. collection is the limiting factor here, rather than the value of rPET as a commodity.

As stated above, the world of PET/polyester is much bigger than just packaging. Historically, the main use of recycled PET bottles has been to make fiber for long-lasting applications such as apparel, carpets, sleeping bags and much more. While bottle-to-bottle PET recycling has not been the dominant model in North America, end markets are shifting rapidly, as the realization of material circularity grows more popular in the public consciousness. Our most recent data from 2020 shows that rPET use in new bottles overtook that of fiber for the first time in the U.S. and Canada, clearly demonstrating the direction that the industry is trending toward. This indicates PET bottle-to-bottle recycling works and demand is growing faster than supply. Instead of denigrating PET, it would be better to report its success and help foster greater collection.

Recycled PET chart

One final point is that at times the article seems to conflate challenges related to recycling green (or other pigmented PET) with PET recycling overall. NAPCOR bale audits—performed annually since 2008—have consistently shown that at least 88% of PET bottles in curbside bales are free of dyes or labels that would interfere with the recycling process. Thus, the amount of PET “piling up” without a clear end market is greatly exaggerated in this article.

After receipt of our letter outlining the facts and sentiments above, Kate Holland of ABC News was unyielding and stood by the “extensive research” that went into the piece. NAPCOR was dismissed as a special interest group without credible data, despite the citation of our annual recycling report as supporting evidence in the article. The fight against misinformation continues to be an uphill battle, but with a 35 year track record as a data-driven organization, it’s one NAPCOR will gladly undertake.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

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