Recycled Plastics Pop Up All Over

QUICK: What's yellow, fuzzy, and covers a tennis ball? Gotcha! A used soda bottle.

Recycled plastics are turning up in a growing number of products these days, from carpeting and park benches to men's ties and the shoulder pads in women's clothing.

But don't expect the product to wear a tag boasting this. Even though recycled resins are often cheaper than virgin ones, manufacturers fear that customers view them as inferior.

``Most companies don't want to market their products as recycled, because consumers don't think of that as acceptable,'' says Susan Davis, director of marketing for Johnson Controls, a plastics manufacturer and recycler in Manchester, Mich.

Johnson Controls collects 140 million polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottles - roughly half those used in Michigan - to recycle into non-food bottles and plastic flakes. The market is good now, with demand exceeding supply and recycling capacity outstripping collection capability.

Wellman Inc., based in Shrewsbury, N.J., is the largest end-user of old PET bottles in the United States, and has been at it since 1979. Wellman also recycles the more rigid high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic used in milk and water jugs, nylon scrap, and X-ray film. One-third of the company's recycled plastic is used in the carpeting industry; one-third becomes fiber-fill used in sleeping bags, furniture, and coats; and the final third is used for special nitch markets like clothing shoulder pads and tennis balls, according to Caroline Mixon, recycling manager. Wellman pays about 7 cents a pound for used PET bottles, and sells recycled resin for about 35 cents a pound.

Image Carpets Inc. in Armuchee, Ga., started making recycled synthetic carpeting a year ago, and sells all over the world. ``Business has been amazingly good,'' says Harry Shearer, director of marketing. Used soda bottles have advantages over virgin resin, he says, because they have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and provide uniform resiliency.

The average living room might be carpeted by some 1,250 old bottles. Using clear and green bottles, Image makes all colors of carpeting, from white and earth tones preferred by American consumers to bright colors preferred by customers in the Middle East.

``Almost all the stuff that goes into a piece of carpet comes from an oil well, mainly from imported oil. Somebody buys the oil from Saudi Arabia, makes soft drink bottles, and I make it back into carpet,'' Shearer says. Until recently, buyers in the Middle East purchased 25 percent of Image's carpet.

Food containers are still not being manufactured from used plastics, because the technology for cleaning the plastics has yet to ensure that a container is completely free of its former contents. Consumers wouldn't want apple cider to be sold in a plastic jug that used to be a car battery, for example.

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