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The Problem with Plastic: The Recycling Industry

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

Today we're continuing our deep-dive into why plastic is such a problematic and pervasive material in our everyday lives. If you missed it, you can start at the beginning here.

Around the time that the plastic industry's co-opted the recycling logo started showing up on plastic products en masse, so too did plastic products start showing up at recycling facilities - regardless of whether a given facility could do anything with it.


You see in addition to the lobbying of state and local governments, the plastic industry also began a national campaign espousing the benefits of plastic to an unsuspecting populace. Governments had begun introducing legislation to try and stop so much plastic use, largely because they couldn't process the waste. The plastic industry undertook a massive PR campaign that included funding recycling centers to take on these products, even though the plastic producers themselves knew these products wouldn't be recycled.


Recycling plastic is "costly," it says, and sorting it, the report concludes, is "infeasible." - NPR

Feeling the public pressure, many recycling facilities acquiesced and allowed the most common plastic products - milk and soda bottles - to be brought in. Fairly soon however any product with that familiar triangle logo started arriving because consumers didn't know the difference. And this is perhaps the crux of the issue, it's like the great Al Pacino's line out of The Devil's Advocate: “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” Instead of blaming the plastic and oil industry for the situation, we blamed the recycling facilities for not keeping up.


At the time, recycling facilities mostly processed aluminum, paper and steel. That's still true today as the market for them is established and the technology in place so that these materials can be recycled and sold back to industry profitably. In fact it's so profitable that Closed Loop Partners (arguably the leading investor in the circular economy) created Circular Services with property giant Brookfield. The new company purports to be the largest privately-owned recycling company in North America. In case you were wondering how much money there actually is in recycling, Brookfield are committing up to $700m of their own money to fund it.

But back to the 90s, existing recycling companies used the profits they made on materials they could process to offset their losses on plastic. Once every type of plastic under the sun started showing up however, the situation became untenable. So, forced to find a solution or drown in plastic waste, the industry found a willing partner in China. The economic boom that began in 1978 turned China into the second largest producer of plastic in the world, but still they could not keep up with the demand from a growing population. They needed more raw material to serve its domestic market, and they found it in all the plastic the West could not process and had no idea what to do with.


There was a catch though. China needed a very specific type of plastic best suited for re-processing into new material. It started off receiving this but, much like the recycling centers in the US before it, soon started receiving all manner of plastic products it couldn't do anything with. But the West was paying China to take these products off their hands, so the practice continued, albeit with increasing oversight over time. This finally came to a head in 2017 when China had had enough.

After two decades of taking responsibility for lower and lower qualities of plastic, often contaminated with food and other products that ruined any chance of recycling it in the first place, they placed a ban on the importation of these materials. They'd spent over 20 years taking more than half of the waste the world wanted to export, and having watched the degradation of their air quality due to having to incinerate much of this material or have it impact their waterways, they weren't going to take it any more.


The problem for us in the West is all this time it had been so cheap to send plastic waste overseas so we hadn't invested in our own infrastructure to be able to manage it ourselves. While the US has increasingly turned to more and more countries desperate for any sort of income to take their waste, the burden has still managed to reach local municipalities. China at least had one thing going for it, which was cheap labor that could sort through the waste coming in and still be left with an industry that could turn a profit. The US, UK and other developed nations don't have that; we can't afford to pay people to sort through, wash and dry the plastic that arrives with food still caked on. Faced with no good option, many cities across the US have made the only choice available to them and stopped recycling. Without the infrastructure and labor to make the industry viable, coupled with a consumer base unwilling to take the time themselves to prepare plastic products for recycling, many municipalities simply didn't feel they had a choice.


Which brings us to the third and final leg of the reason plastic doesn't get recycled: us.


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