After pandemic-related turbulence, the US PET industry is slowly recovering
As President & CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski experienced first-hand the light and dark sides that the pandemic had in store for the US plastics industry. In our interview, he reports on the advantages that the material was able to demonstrate for the health sector, but also on the adverse effects that the pandemic had on the recycling market.
PETplanet: Plastics Industry Association is supporting the entire US plastics chain. How have you and your members experienced the last 18 months, in the wake of the pandemic?
Radoszewski: Plastic is everywhere, but its positive contributions have tended to hide in plain sight. The pandemic really brought to light how essential plastic is to modern societies. Plastic gloves, face masks and barriers have been essential in preventing and treating Covid-19. Put simply, plastic has proven to be irreplaceable, and no doubt saved countless lives during this challenging period.
PETplanet: What precautions had you taken in your organisation regarding the pandemic, and which are still active?
Radoszewski: I have a very real responsibility as the leader of our association to keep my people safe. I take that responsibility very seriously. We’ve consistently adhered to guidance and protocols from federal and local public health agencies. We’ve been very successful in adapting to virtual operations since last year. That being said, I very much look forward to getting back into the office for regular in-person meetings with my staff later this year. It’s tough to replace the ability to drop into a colleague’s office with a quick question. Those quick brainstorming sessions can often times lead to big ideas.
PETplanet: Regarding the PET/bottling industry in particular – how do the production figures currently compare to the last few years?
Radoszewski: The long-term trend is upward and production has partially recovered from the shock that resulted from the pandemic last year. However, various near-term supply chain bottlenecks have prevented a full production recovery compared to past years.
PETplanet: During the pandemic, the consumption behaviour of many consumers changed. In Europe, for example, there was an increase in sales of PET packaging in larger containers. Have you also observed new trends in the USA – a country where larger containers are more important anyway – with regard to PET bottles?
Radoszewski: The data really doesn’t point to a strong shift to larger containers in the United States. Consumption of essentials rose significantly during the pandemic, which was reflected in both small and large PET containers. During the peak of the public health crisis, consumers purchased what was readily available.
PETplanet: During the lockdowns, many recyclers complained of not getting bottles back at the usual rate. How have the recyclers among your members been doing? And are the plants now running at full capacity again?
Radoszewski: Our members also experienced the availability issue. Interestingly, this happened most noticeably in those states with bottle-return policies since the deposit centres stopped taking them back. New York even waived the requirement for retailers to take them back. Some kerb side collection was impacted, but not as drastically. Most plants currently are back to operating at full capacity. However, the bale price is significantly higher than last year at this time and in some places almost double 2019 prices.
PETplanet: In your view, how does the American recycling industry compare internationally with regard to PET? And what adjustments could be made for further improvements?
Radoszewski: The US differs from most of the world because we do not have a single system to collect plastics, especially PET bottles. This complicates access to recycling and is influenced by a number of local factors including container-deposit policies, attitudes, and infrastructure. These all impact the economics of recycling. Unlike other types of plastic products where there may be technical challenges in their recycling, the issue with PET bottles is one of consumer participation. Recyclers could – and want – to process more PET bottles. There is a strong market for recycled PET. Increased consumer education and an increase is recycling infrastructure would go a long way to improving the recycling system and rates overall.
PETplanet: California is in the headlines often at the moment because of new packaging and recycling bills, and your association has specifically positioned itself against the California Labelling Bill SB 343. Can you briefly explain to our readers the most important bills that affect the PET bottling/recycling industry?
Radoszewski: There are two significant bills in California that we are keeping an eye on and it’s a bit confusing as to what the goal is here. AB 478 mandates recycled content in all thermoforms. This includes PET as well as the other resins such as polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene.
Another bill we’re watching is SB 343. It would create a prescribed list of recyclable materials and would prevent the use of the chasing arrows symbol on any material not listed. Incredibly, PET thermoforms, which package so much of California’s fresh produce would not be considered recyclable and would instead be landfilled. There are strong, viable, and growing markets for this material in California and this legislation would prevent their recycling.
In sum, one bill requires recycled content from materials that the other bill does not consider recyclable.
PETplanet: What role do directives play for your members in the US market that, like the example of tethered caps, are currently becoming binding for the European market?
Radoszewski: We continue to see legislation pushing tethered caps. These efforts are not as significant as has been the case in the past. However, Maine and Massachusetts both had bills introduced on the subject this year. Other directives we have been following are recycled content mandates in plastic bottles. Last year California passed a recycled content law, and this year Maine and Washington both passed similar laws.
PETplanet: The challenging global situation entailed the shift of the NPE show to 2024. Which (strategic) changes, difficulties but also opportunities resulted from that for you? What possibilities are you going to tackle to strengthen the relationship with your exhibitors, visitors and of course your direct members, also in the interim period?
Radoszewski: Organisations across the globe have found new meaning in the old idiom “necessity is the mother of invention.” The past 18 months or so have been jarring in so many ways, but our association has been more agile and adaptable than even I thought possible. We’ve accepted challenges as opportunities and have hosted numerous virtual events to maintain strong engagement with our members and stakeholders. At the same time, nothing can fully replace the in-person dynamics of a trade show of the size and scale of NPE. That’s why we’re laying the groundwork right now for the NPE 2024 to be the best NPE ever.
PETplanet: We are looking forward to it! Thank you very much!