By Barbara Kessler

Plastics have proliferated, but the rate of consumer recycling has stagnated.

recycling_symbol.gifThe percent of #1 (PET) plastic recycled was actually highest in the United States a decade ago, in 1995-1997, when it ranged from 27 to 40 percent.

The percent of recycled #1 plastic — used in soda, water and juice bottles — has since hovered at just 20-24 percent, according to a report by The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). That means that of all those bajillion bottles on the grocery shelves, less than one-quarter of them are recycled into new bottles, carpet fibers or clothing.

Part of the blame lies with consumers, who have not been diligent. But perhaps an even bigger share of culpability rests with cities that have not energetically promoted recycling, especially as the initial budgets for consumer education dried up, say industry experts.

In many cities, recycling languished and failed to grow into the profit center that would justify vigorous attention. Though industry leaders say that in 2008 many cities are about to turn the corner as plastic recycling markets expand.

In Dublin, Calif., in the Bay Area, they already excel in recycling. Here in the suburbs south of Oakland, curbside pickup of plastics and other reusable material is a success story that took root early and has become embedded in the culture, says Roger Bradley, an administrative analyst with the city.

Bradley remembers helping his dad carry out the recyclables out in their various bins in the 1990s with a proud feeling that they were doing the right thing for the environment. Today, he says, residents continue that tradition, incorporating recycling into their daily routine.

A closer look at the process in Dublin, which gets recycling assistance and oversight from Alameda County, reveals that it wasn’t just a love fest of altruistic citizens that conjured the recycling genie from the great green earth. It was cold hard policy decisions.