US plastic recycling crisis

Signal of change / US plastic recycling crisis

By Laura Picot / 27 Apr 2015

The drop in oil prices has made the price of recycled plastic, a petroleum-derived resource, decrease by almost 50% in recent months. Most US recycled plastic is sold to China, where it is used to make items such as carpet, toothbrushes and fleece. However, manufacturers can now source virgin polymers, with the exact chemical composition they need, for less than US-imported recycled polymers.

As of March, the cost of new plastic has fallen, and now costs approximately 7% less than recycled forms, meaning that recyclers are no longer able to profit from sales of recycled polymers. Plastic bags, which are particularly expensive to process, have stopped being recycled by Waste Management, the largest US recycling company.

Image: allybeag / Flickr

So what?

Global economic trends are interacting to have a major impact on the US recycling $100 billion industry. The economic line between whether an item can be profitably recycled is a fine one and fluctuates greatly, and in recent months the balance has tipped towards recycling being less profitable.

The strengthening of the US Dollar and weakening of the Euro have also deterred the Chinese market from buying US recycled paper, which makes up 90% of US recycled exports, as it is now cheaper to buy from Europe. Moreover, general demand for imported recycled products has dropped as China is recycling more of their own waste.

The upshot of this is that the US is now recycling less and the export of recycled materials, particularly plastic, has decreased by several per cent. Items that are no longer profitable to recycle are being sent to landfill: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania announced in February that it will stop recycling glass due to the expense. This trend has obvious environmental consequences and is a significant economic blow to the US recycling industry.

Sources

Planet Money (2015, March 27) Episode 613: Trash!

globalEDGE (2015, 07 April) Low oil prices bad news for recycling

ABC 27 News (2015, February 13) Harrisburg to stop recycling glass, expand paper and plastics

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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