The Recycling Process, Part IV: Resale

We’ve collected, separated out what we want, cleaned it up, and put it back in condition to be sold. But what’s recycled plastic good for?

When I was in the business, we recyclers longed for an application that could only use recycled plastic—then our material would be scarce and prices would go up. Truth is, anything that can be made from recycled material can be made from virgin, and virgin is usually higher quality. So to compete with virgin plastic, recyclers need to keep costs at a minimum so they can keep prices down as well.

With that said, the potential market for recycled material is limited only by the potential market for virgin because the two things go to the same place. The two major plastics—#1 PET and #2 HDPE—constitute the largest volume of plastic material. PET goes into polyester fiber of various kinds and back into bottles and sheet plastic—sometimes even food-grade plastic if it’s really high quality. HDPE goes to bottles, usually in a middle layer of the wall, drainage pipe, housewrap, overnight shipping envelopes, and decking, among other things. Recycled materials are used for the same or similar purposes as virgin.

What about price and quality? These are commodity markets: price really matters. And the consumer generally will not pay more for recycled material, particularly if it is not integral to the use or benefit from the product. For example, recycled plastic in drainage pipe: those using the drain do not perceive a value from recycled material; the value is the ability to take wastewater away.

Dr. Bill Carroll explains the uses for recycled materials and why resale is so important to the process.

Geography matters as well. Billions of pounds of recovered material are exported to Asia because the price is better. The price of recycled plastic depends on the price of virgin plastic. Where virgin is expensive, good recycle is a bargain. Because the cost of raw materials is higher in Asia than in the United States and Asia cannot supply its virgin plastic needs, the export market from the States is strong, and that’s not a bad thing.

Two caveats. First, some people say this material is being shipped to Asia for disposal rather than recycling. Given that it’s being purchased at a higher price than is offered in the United States, that doesn’t seem likely, at least for packaging waste. Electronic waste, not covered here, may be different. Second, some people say that this material should stay here to feed the recycling capacity in the United States. As a former recycler, I’m sympathetic to the argument, but in the end the remedy is to improve our collection rate, which is only about 30%, even with municipal collection.

How do we do that? Unfortunately—or fortunately, perhaps—it depends on individuals like you, and it’s pretty simple. Put the recyclables in the blue bin. If you have recyclables away from home—such as single-serve bottles—take ’em home or find a blue bin on the road. Encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. None of this happens without collection.

Recycling is nowhere near as simple as I’ve made it sound. Day to day, recyclers run into unappreciated problems all the time. That’s why it’s a difficult, challenging, and kind of rewarding job. But maybe by understanding the basics, you have a better idea of how real recycling comes to pass, downstream of the blue bin.

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