06 September 2017

Is plastic recycling profitable?

Obviously, it's best not to recycle at all, and refuse or repurpose instead.
However for an average person, living on average salary and not having enough time to buy only entirely biodegradable, unpacked goods it's a bit of a Holy Grail crusade.

So if it's not possible to go completely zerowaste, why so many people find it hard to recycle?

There are many reasons that people, who avoid recycling, name as culprits:

  • It's hard to do
  • It doesn't make any difference
  • They should pay me to recycle
  • I have no space for recycling
  • It's inconvenient

To me all of these sound exactly like the last point:

Recycling is inconvenient

Just consider what "it's hard to do" means. It means that it's complicated either to the fact that you have to separate, clean, take to the recycling centre or make sure you use the right container or a mix of all of these.
That is a hassle. And why is that? Because recycling business want to push as much responsibility for the pre-processing onto consumer's shoulders, to cut costs.

How about "it doesn't make any difference"? On the surface, it looks like another issue, but in reality, the results aren't visible because so many people choose to not recycle for the rest of the reasons. Hence the main point is again: inconvenience.

"I have no space" reason is a no-brainer. Of course, recycling takes space. Especially if you have to separate, keep special bins and so on. Major inconvenience if you have a small house!

Should they pay me to recycle? That's a controversial one, but only if you don't look at it in depth. Imagine I've bought wine in a lovely crystal carafe. I drank it, but the carafe still has value, and I can sell it easily. Why not recyclables? Are there no companies who'd use these materials? As a matter of fact there are. Simple example are the bottle returning schemes that work in many countries. Usually glass bottles are exchanged for a small fee which makes the inconvenience a bit of a smaller burden.

It almost seems as if the "recyclable trash" is worth nothing or costs a lot more than raw resources.

And it has been that way, but not nowadays.

Recycling industry reports show that the plastic scrap recycling business has grown more profitable over the past decade. With the rising cost of petroleum, plastic scrap recycling saves natural resources and reduces production costs.

Recycling plastic business includes a broad base of scrap suppliers, a recycling plant, shipping facilities, and buyers of the end product. Recyclers of plastic prefer to purchase directly from major suppliers, such as retail stores and chain restaurants. Any successful recycling plastic business needs an uninterrupted supply of scrap plastic which means that there is a constant need for the product. In this case your trash.

The demand side of this business has shifted dramatically over the last decade or so also due to initiatives such as the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for buildings. Post-consumer recycled content garners extra points towards certification. So that has driven demand up, which makes it more profitable than before to deal in recycled plastics.

The fashion business also uses recycled polyester (and promotes as such on the price tags), which likely comes from recycled PET bottles, very hard to recycle otherwise. So there is a lot of healthy demand compared to in the past for these recycled resins.

Why then isn't the inconvenience taken of an average Joe to help recycling become a norm rather than some fancy-pants green fighter play?

It's profit. A lot of wealth comes from natural resources management and ownership and it makes no sense of these people to want the recycling to become the choice of the future. That'd make their valuable goods obsolete.
Of course, this kind of thinking is devastating, but let's not forget we're dealing with people who in majority care more about their wallets and less about the future of this planet.

I believe there is a lot we can do to put pressure on the governments to make them aware that we know these simple truths:

Recycling is profitable for companies 
Recycling is inconvenient for consumers

There has to be a shift in obligations towards recycling business if we want a better future.
And business leaders who understand this and support it should get more help from their governments so that they can help us, consumers, live a better, greener life.