Here’s guessing you are familiar with the concept of consumer recycling. Maybe your local community mandates recycling at the curbside. Perhaps your community used to but has since terminated any such efforts. Regardless, recycling involves two key elements: possibility and viability.
The CalRecycle website briefly discusses whether all consumer plastics can be recycled. They do so with the first question on their FAQ page. The answer to that question states that “many different types of plastic products can technically be recycled.” Yet the question of economic viability eliminates some plastics from the equation.
Possibility and Technical Ability
When CalRecycle states that different types of plastics can technically be recycled, they are saying that we have the ability and capability to do so. There isn’t any form of plastic on the planet that cannot be recycled one way or another. So why does more than 90% of it end up in landfills and incinerators?
It boils down to economic viability. Recycling costs money. Those who do it have to cover their costs somehow. And when recycling is handled by private companies, they also need to make a profit. As long as recycling remains a money-losing proposition, it is not worth doing.
Profit Is a Fantastic Incentive
Profit is a fantastic incentive to recycle. There is no doubt about that. Just look at all the companies that successfully recycle commercial plastic waste. Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics is just one of them. Seraphim Plastics operates in seven states, including Kentucky, Arkansas, and Ohio.
Seraphim Plastics says that the secret to their profitability is process. They utilize a mechanical recycling process that is both cost-effective and logistically efficient. They also require customers to clean and sort plastics before company trucks arrive to pick them up. In this way, Seraphim Plastics eliminates the costly proposition of cleaning and sorting in-house.
Household Recycling Is Different
In theory, we could apply the same recycling principles to the residential market. That being the case, we could recycle tons of household plastic products for a profit. So why don’t we? Because the process we currently have in place is not economically viable.
A typical municipal recycling program starts at the curb. Consumers pitch properly numbered plastics into a recycling bin along with their paper and glass. Everything in the bin is collected by the trash hauler and forwarded to a sorting facility. That is the first hiccup.
Manual sorting is costly because it is labor-intensive. Automated sorting can be utilized, but it is not as reliable. Yet the biggest problem of all is contamination. A single source of contamination can render an entire load of plastics useless. Rather than being recycled, they need to be sent to the landfill.
Someone Has To Buy It
After the local trash hauler sorts and cleans plastics, someone needs to buy the material. But no recycler is going to pay an arm and a leg for the stuff. Remember, recyclers must make a profit. The problem is that municipal recycling programs have to sell recycled materials at a price that recyclers are willing to pay. That price rarely covers the costs of collection, sorting, and cleaning.
The end result is that municipalities continually lose money on curbside recycling. If they turn the work over to a private trash hauler, it makes no difference. The trash hauler cannot make any money either.
Technically speaking, it is possible to recycle any and all plastics we manufacture. We don’t do so because most recycling programs are economically inviable. Make them viable and you change the entire dynamic. Just ask Seraphim Plastics.