Time was, the best thing about plastic laundry soap bottles was that nothing happened to them. They didn't break when dropped. The detergents inside didn't dissolve them. They lasted forever.
Nowadays, though, the worst thing about those plastic laundry bottles is that nothing happens to them. Long after they have been emptied and discarded, they endure.
As a result, at least three area plastics and detergent companies have begun looking for ways to make the cheap and colorful packaging a little friendlier to the environment.
After months of preparation, Lever Bros. Co. dedicated a 47-person research center yesterday in Owings Mills that will search for ways to use recycled plastics and paper in 200 million detergent and soap packages each year, about half of the company's total production.
Lever officials unveiled new locally designed plastic bottles for the Wisk brand detergent and Snuggle brand fabric softener made in the company's Baltimore plant.
From the outside, the new bottles look just like the old ones, but a cross section shows they have a layer of recycled plastic in the center.
By the end of the year, half of Lever Bros.' bottled products will be packaged in the new bottles, which are about 30 percent recycled plastic, said Arnold Brown, Lever's vice president of packaging and director of the new research center.
Lever's venture will pull about 50 million trashed plastic bottles a year out of garbage heaps, Mr. Brown said. And that, he said, is only the beginning.
"As soon as we can increase the recycling content safely, we will," Mr. Brown said.
Lever's engineers are using new computers and a prototype testing lab to figure out how to use even more recycled plastic in each bottle without harming the bottle's strength or appearance.
While Lever works on new designs, one of its suppliers, Sonoco Graham Co., is about to open a plant in York, Pa., where about 10 workers will buy empty plastic bottles from communities from Florida to Maine and turn them into materialfor the new bottles.
The Sonoco Graham plant, which will be dedicated next week, will use 10 million pounds of the recycled plastic in bottles for Lever Bros. By 1991, it plans to produce and sellanother 10 million pounds to companies such as Texaco Inc. for their one-quart oil bottles, said company spokesman Roger Prevot.
Sonoco Graham, a privately held company in which Sonoco Products Co. of Hartsville, S.C., has a 40 percent share, is the nation's biggest producer of plastic bottles.
Now that the price of one of the raw materials of "virgin" plastic -- oil -- has skyrocketed, Mr. Prevot says, his company is delighted by its timing.
"This is a good time to be in recycling," he said. The new plant will give Sonoco Graham's 27 plastic-bottle plants around the country a supply at a stable price, he said.
The Lever and Sonoco efforts follow by only three months the opening of a 20-worker PolySource Mid-Atlantic Inc. recycling plant in Rosedale that is buying plastic bottles, melting them down and planning to sell the resulting plastic pellets to Procter & Gamble Co., which will turn the pellets into packaging for its laundry products.
PolySource is the first manufacturing endeavor of ITC Inc., an international commodity-trading company based in Towson.
Most of the local plastic-recycling enterprises have cost their owners money. Lever Bros., for example, "spent many millions" in the year it took to develop its new "sandwich" bottle, Mr. Brown said.
"We want to demonstrate our continuing concern about the environment. . . . We want to show the world we are good environmental citizens," Mr. Brown said. But he added, "We are not doing this for altruism."
Lever Bros. is touting its recycling program on its new bottle labels and hoping that the effort will help sales and profits.
Though recycling is receiving more and more attention from businesses, governments and consumers, the local recycling executives say they are running into some surprising roadblocks.
Communities all over the region are beginning to recycle trash, but buyers of used plastic bottles say they can't get enough to supply the growing demand for recycled plastic.
Bill Burrows, head of corporate strategy for PolySource, said the Rosedale plant has been buying bottles from Maryland, Washington and Northern Virginia for three months and still hasn't collected one truckload.
The shortage has created a small bidding war for plastic among the few buyers, he said.
And some environmentalists have given the industry's recycling efforts only lukewarm endorsements.
"There is a controversy about plastics," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition.
"We don't like to encourage the use of plastics. . . . But if you do have to use plastics, then fine," she said,explaining that she likes the idea of reducing the amount of trash in landfills.
Perhaps some of the environmentalists' ambivalence can be traced to the detergent industry's fight against Maryland's phosphate ban and the industry's continuing sales of phosphate-containing detergents in states without such a ban, Ms. Rosso said.
"Maybe some of them are trying to make up for the damage they did," she said. "I'm just happy they've jumped on board."