The U.S. recycling rate for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles increased slightly in 2017, according to a report from the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), Florence, Kentucky, and The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington.

According to the “Report on Postconsumer PET Container Recycling Activity in 2017,” the PET bottle recycling rate was 29.2 percent, reflecting a slight increase over the 2016 rate of 28.4 percent. The rate increase reflected decreases in total collection volumes and the volume of PET bottles available for recycling in the U.S., the organizations say in a news release announcing the report’s availability.

*Producer price index is based on December 1980 average prices as 100; source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

“Demand for rPET continues to be healthy, and we have capacity and infrastructure to meet those needs,” says Tom Busard, NAPCOR chairman, chief procurement officer for Plastipak Packaging Inc. of Plymouth, Michigan, and president of Clean Tech Inc., Plastipak’s recycling affiliate based in Dundee, Michigan. “However, we have more work to do to improve the quality and volume of PET that goes to our reclaimers.”

The recycling rate is derived by using the total volume of recycled PET material purchased by U.S. processors (reclaimers) and export markets in 2017—1.73 billion pounds—taken as a percentage of the total volume of PET resin used in U.S. bottles and potentially available for recycling—5.91 billion pounds. Of that 1.73 billion pounds collected, 1.44 billion pounds were purchased and processed by domestic PET reclaimers, according to the report. The remainder of the collected material, 283 million pounds, was sold to export markets, including Canada.

The report notes that export volumes continued to decline in 2017. At 16 percent of total collection, exports during that year accounted for the lowest export fraction recorded since 2004.

“The key to continued growth in the PET recycling industry is increased demand for rPET by end users and designing bottles for recyclability.” – Steve Alexander, The Association of Plastic Recyclers

The domestic market readily absorbed the bottles not exported, however, according to the report, exhibiting strong demand for the material.

“The key to continued growth in the PET recycling industry is increased demand for rPET by end users and designing bottles for recyclability,” APR President Steve Alexander says. “Increased utilization of rPET provides the connection to meeting ‘circular economy’ sustainability goals announced by many consumer brands. Despite challenges with increased contamination and demand markets, the rPET industry continues to demonstrate its strength in terms of consistent domestic material purchases and investment in enhanced processing capacity.”

A recent announcement that supports strong demand and enhanced processing capacity came from Nestlé Waters North America, headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut. The company says it has signed a “significant agreement” with rPET supplier CarbonLite Industries LLC, Los Angeles, which is expanding its U.S. operations by building a third facility in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.

The new contract builds upon Nestlé Waters’ existing relationship with CarbonLite and allows the beverage company to further expand the use of recycled materials in its packaging. Nestlé Waters says it currently purchases rPET from CarbonLite’s existing plants in California and Texas.

CarbonLite says it anticipates the plant will be in full production by early 2020 and will have the ability to recycle more than 2 billion postconsumer bottles annually. The new 200,000-square-foot processing facility is expected to produce 80 million pounds per year of food-grade rPET pellets, according to the news release from Nestlé Waters.