What Really Drives Recycling – It’s Not What You Think

Do you remember when you first learned about the concept of recycling? You were probably introduced to it in grade school, in the context of environmental responsibility. And if you are young enough, recycling may have been presented as a way to help stop climate change. Just know that reality is far different from what you learned in school. What really drives recycling may not be what you think.

Recycling education is almost always approached from the standpoint of protecting the environment. We talk about polluted water and overflowing landfills. We focus on sustainability and protecting ecosystems. None of that is necessarily bad. But at the end of the day, the planet is not what drives recycling. The primary driver is found in a single word: markets.

Recycling and Commodities Markets

Yahoo! News published an unusual recycling piece not too long ago. It was unusual in the sense that it was refreshingly honest about how curbside recycling works. Author Brain Gordon went as far as to explain that “what does and doesn’t get recycled is determined more by economics than the environment.”

He went on to say that commodities markets determine what is worth recycling as opposed to what goes to the landfill. At the current time, aluminum sells for roughly $3,000 per metric ton. Gordon also cited impressive prices for steel and tin. His point was that recyclers are more than happy to recover materials they can turn around and sell. What they cannot sell goes to the landfill.

The commodities markets actually control a lot of what happens in the global economy. But just as far as recycling is concerned, it is the demand for commodities that determines pricing. Likewise, pricing determines whether recycling a particular material is worthwhile. That is why nearly all post-consumer plastics end up in landfills. Nobody wants to buy recycled plastic. Virgin plastic is a lot cheaper.

Recycling for Manufacturing

The Yahoo! News piece focused almost exclusively on post-consumer materials, which is to say those things that are collected in curbside recycling programs. But there is an entirely separate market driven less by commodities and more by manufacturing needs. That market involves post-industrial plastics.

Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that buys and sells scrap plastic in Tennessee, Indiana, Michigan, and a number of other states. They buy things like plastic totes and pallets, then reduce them to a material known as plastic regrind. Manufacturers purchase the regrind and add it to virgin plastic before making new products.

Interestingly enough, the industrial market Seraphim caters to is a lot less volatile than commodities markets. That is why they are able to consistently recycle industrial scrap plastic and make money doing so. Nonetheless, their motivation is economic. They don’t do what they do to save the planet.

A Necessary Balance

Unfortunately, we human beings tend to think in extremes. We tend more toward polar opposites than balance. That is why we are having such a difficult time getting a handle on the plastic problem.

On the one extreme, we look at plastic as an environmental disaster that has to be eliminated at any cost. On the other extreme is the idea that profit trumps everything else. We have to keep producing plastic waste because it is the cheapest way to do things.

If we ever want to solve the plastic problem, we need to find a happy balance. We also have to come to terms with the fact that markets drive recycling as much as they do plastic production. The sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can find solutions.