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China Spells Crisis for Postconsumer Plastics

by Alexander H. Tullo
May 17, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 20

Credit: Photodisc
Credit: Photodisc

The rate of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle recycling is declining, and China is pricing domestic buyers of empty bottles out of the market, according to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR).

The situation is enough of a crisis that APR has retained lobbying firm Kinghorn, Hilbert & Associates to help find government policies that could reverse these problems.

“We are dangerously close to irreversibly losing significant amounts of recycling capacity,” says Robin Cotchan, executive director of APR. “Business as usual cannot continue.” APR represents U.S. plastics recycling companies and gets additional funding from the American Plastics Council.

Cotchan explains that although U.S. bottle production has increased, recycling has declined, leaving supplies of reclaimed bottles flat. According to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), about 800 million lb of bottles were recycled in both 1995 and 2002.

Moreover, because of low labor costs, Chinese producers can offer more money for reclaimed bottles, Cotchan says. In fact, according to NAPCOR, nearly 35% of the bottles collected for recycling in the U.S. in 2002 went to China.

Cotchan worries that without its feedstock, the U.S. bottle recycling industry will dry up. And goods based on recycled polyester such as nonwoven fabrics and pillow stuffing will be increasingly imported. “It could follow in the same footpath as the textile industry,” she warns.


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