The recycling industry has been suffering from a trio of maladies. First, plastic is cheaper to make when oil prices fall, as they have in recent years, and this undermines the economics of recycling. To be financially viable, a recycling operation must make more money than the cost of gathering the waste and processing it. The Coronavirus has thoroughly destroyed the price of oil; and if oil, and therefore plastic, is cheap to begin with, it does not make economic sense for a company to process and sell recycled materials if they end up being more expensive than the virgin plastic another company is making.
The second issue for the recycling industry is that, for decades, the whole world was selling mountains of recyclable materials to China for processing. But in 2018, China said “No thanks to all that anymore” and banned imports of plastics and mixed paper. This has created a serious challenge for the rest of the world and left everyone wondering what comes next.
The third problem is one that not everyone notices: the quality of the waste is going down.
In the past couple of years, for example, many manufacturers have been making thinner bottles to save money by using less plastic. But this will discourage waste management companies from recycling as the operation becomes progressively less profitable.
There is a serious issue looming ahead of us: disposables and single-use plastics are now more popular than ever owing to the Coronavirus. So this will create another crisis for us as soon as this pandemic is over, namely huge amounts of plastic waste that need to be collected, sorted and recycled.
Sharif Metals, Int'l LLC (ARE), Board Member of the BIR Plastics Committee