U.S. Recycling Industry Is Struggling To Figure Out A Future Without China : NPR
But as environmental groups like Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic point out, just because something can technically be recycled doesn’t mean it will be. There has to be an industry robust enough to do it — and a profit at the end of the day. And, they say, building up recycling allows plastic producers to keep making 300 million tons of new plastic every year (half of which is for single use) and to put the burden of cleaning up the waste on someone else.
Pochiro, of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, says recycling does need help — from consumers, for example. “We’re trying to make consumers understand that recycling isn’t just about putting your container in the bin,” she says. “You also need to buy recycled,” meaning products that contain recycled plastic.
There’s a growing market for such products, stuff like bottles, clothing, packaging or bags, for example. But it’s tough to compete against cheap virgin plastic. Recycling companies need huge investments, and to get that, they have to show they have a market for their products. And for that, Pochiro says, they need commitments — voluntary or mandated by law — by consumer goods companies to buy recycled plastic.
“If a recycler can’t be confident enough that they have a market for at least maybe six months to a year,” she says, “then they aren’t going to want to make that investment in their own facilities” to make more recycled plastic.
But there’s a disconnect underlying all this talk by the plastics industry to help recyclers and the circular economy of plastic.
A report from ICIS, a plastics market research company, says the petrochemical industry will likely double its plastic manufacturing capacity from 2016 to 2024. And the American Chemistry Council, which represents, among others, plastics manufacturers, says it expects industry to spend nearly $25 billion to build new plastic manufacturing capacity by 2025. (That compares with the $1.5 billion that the industry plans to spend on cleaning up plastic waste.) The World Economic Forum has issued a report on plastic that predicts a doubling of production in the next two decades.
One thing driving that growth is the belief that demand for petroleum-based fuels will decline — the oil and gas industry is looking to produce more plastics from petrochemicals to take up the slack.
So if a new circular plastics economy recycles — that is, reuses — more old plastic, why is the petrochemical industry spending billions of dollars for a boom in new plastic? Where is all that new plastic going to go? It seems the industry isn’t too worried. The American Chemistry Council’s analysis includes this statement about new plastic: “In a virtuous cycle, as the manufacturing renaissance accelerates, demand for plastic products will be generated, reinforcing resin [raw plastic] demand.”
Essentially, go ahead and make it, and people will find a way to use it.