Greenpeace USA sent shockwaves through the sustainability community in the fall of 2022 when they released a bombshell report declaring consumer plastic recycling an utter failure. A lot of people have had a tough time swallowing the truth ever since. Yet the facts do not lie. Financial viability is the issue, and recycling’s three steps all contribute to a lack of it.
A USA Today piece published in honor of Earth Day 2023 lays out the three steps of recycling:
- Collection – Transferring plastic waste from end users to recyclers
- Processing – Transforming plastic waste into reusable materials
- Remanufacturing – Integrating recycled materials into the manufacturing process.
One could make the case that recycling is a lot more complicated. However, these three basic steps do encapsulate plastic recycling nicely. Let us take a look at each one in more detail.
Step #1: Collection
Most of us are familiar with the collection step by way of putting a recycling bin out to the curb and having materials picked up by the local trash hauler. In a residential setting, both municipal solid waste departments and private waste haulers can pick up recycled materials. They are often collected by individuals driving specialized trucks with separate compartments for plastic, paper, and glass.
In a commercial setting, private companies like Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics pick up scrap plastic from manufacturers, industrial companies, etc. Those plastics are not mixed with anything else. A load of pallets is just that: pallets only.
Needless to say that collection costs money. Trucks are expensive. So is fuel, labor, and everything else that goes into collection. The more costly it is to run collection vehicles, the more costly it is to recycle.
Step #2: Processing
The second step in the process is arguably the most expensive for municipal programs. Processing consumer plastics starts with separation. Recyclable plastics need to be separated from trash and nonrecyclable plastics. After that, the recycled material must be cleaned. Finally, it can be shipped to a recycler that transforms it into reusable material.
Processing is a lot easier in the commercial sector. For instance, Seraphim doesn’t need to separate or clean anything. That is all done by the customer. Seraphim can pick up a load, take it back to their plant, and grind it almost immediately.
Processing adds to the cost of recycling commensurate with the amount of labor involved. A company like Seraphim can process commercial plastic waste a lot more cheaply than municipalities can process consumer plastic waste.
Step #3: Remanufacturing
The cheapest of the three steps is remanufacturing. In fact, it costs manufacturers very little if anything at all. In the manufacturing environment, plastic regrind – which is the material produced by recycling – can be mixed with virgin plastic pellets to make new products.
Pellets of both types are mixed in a hopper before being fed into a machine that makes the parts in question. It is all combined when the pellets are melted. As far as manufacturers are concerned, mixing regrind with virgin plastic works extremely well as long as the price is right.
Pricing Is Everything to Recycling
Manufacturers need to be able to purchase regrind at the right price to make doing so viable. For this reason alone, pricing is everything to plastic recycling. If it costs a municipality too much money to collect and process consumer plastics, they cannot sell the recycled material cheaply enough to convince manufacturers to buy it. This is why commercial recycling succeeds while municipal recycling almost always fails.
It is about financial viability. And until something changes, recycling consumer plastics just isn’t a viable proposition. It probably never will be.