A Plastic Wrapped Present: The Journey Ahead for Plastic Recycling Efforts

Date: June 30, 2022

Source: News Room

With constant media coverage of marine plastic pollution, bioaccumulative microplastics in our food, plastic born toxins in the air and many other externalities of our modern resin-based economy, popular and governmental support for regulation has soared. Attention from consumers, regulators and investors has begun to force producers of plastic goods and goods that rely on plastic in their supply chain to adopt more sustainable practices.

One of the major changes this movement has caused, is the move of producers towards using both recycled plastic as well as virgin resin that is easily (and profitably) recyclable. Consumers are more likely than ever to look for products that use recycled materials when they shop and are also more mindful of their own ability to recycle than ever before. This has created a massive global market for recycling plastic. However, most plastic still goes unrecycled.

Only 9% of US plastic ended up being recycled according to the most recent data. Probably much less than the average consumer would expect, and certainly much less than most consumers would hope. This is due to a variety of factors, chief among them being that most plastic resins are not profitable to recycle. Another major reason is that the price of recycled plastic can sometimes exceed the price of comparable virgin resin, depending on the price of oil (the chief ingredient of plastic). If oil prices are low, it is much cheaper for producers to use new plastic.

As recycling methods evolve, it is likely that the cost of recycling all polymers will decrease, however, right now the industry needs help to reach recycling rates that sustainability advocates desire. One major strategy is through vertical integration of supply chains. For example, Waste Management has recently acquired Continuus Materials, a company that turns discarded plastics into building materials. This merger will decrease the costs incurred by Continuus Materials and allow them to compete with producers of virgin materials.

Plastics recycling can also be enhanced through government intervention. In western democracies, support for comprehensive plastics regulation has grown significantly over the last few decades. This has led to increased support for plastics recycling as well as regulation on the production of plastics generally.

These efforts, on top of increasing investor commitment to sustainability across managed assets, have so far led to only minor changes within the plastics recycling industry. In 2010, recycled plastics only accounted for 8% of total discarded plastics, in 2020 they only accounted for 9%. It has yet to be seen how quickly new strategies, legislation and technology will increase that figure across the 2020s.

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