A Short Lesson on the Economics of Ocean Plastic

When plastic isn’t recycled it has a greater chance of ending up in the ocean where it wreaks havoc. If we don’t want plastic in the ocean (who does?) we need a profitable plastic recycling industry. Unfortunately, that industry, right now, is running in the red.

Plastic recycling only works when milk jugs, yogurt tubs and bottles of detergent can be sold for more money than it costs to collect, sort and bale them. Recently, money coming in has been less than money going out, and this upside down accounting can’t be kept up for long. Waste Management, the country’s biggest waste and recycling company, has closed down ten percent of its Material Recovery Facilities, or MRFs to cut costs.

There are several factors getting in the way of a profit: the low price of oil, a slump in the Chinese economy, a strong dollar, and contamination.

Oil prices just dipped below $30 per barrel, a twelve year low. Plastic is made from oil. When making plastic from virgin oil costs less than making plastic from plastic, manufacturers choose oil.

The biggest market for our recycled plastic has been China. China’s economy is down, and Chinese industry isn’t making as much stuff as it used to. Accordingly, demand for our plastic is also down.

The strong US Dollar is great if you’re planning a trip to Europe, but awful if you’re trying to sell ship loads of used plastic to other countries. The market for scrap plastic is global, so our plastic scrap costs more than plastic scrap from a country with a weak currency.

We, the plastic users, can’t do much about the low price of oil, the economic slump in China or the strong dollar, but we can stop tossing non-recyclable material into our recycling bins. When bags, straws and plastic forks, end up at MRFs more people must be hired to remove them, and the bottom line suffers. It’s difficult to get every bit of non-recyclable garbage out, and some of it ends up contaminating bales of other recyclables. Bales of water bottles contaminated with plastic forks bring in less money than uncontaminated bales. In fact, processors may not accept contaminated bales at all. And while a mayonnaise bottle can be recycled, the mayonnaise in it can not be. Rinse it out first.

Sometimes our enthusiasm for recycling leads to more contamination. My friend Ginger lives in Boulder, Colorado, where recycling can be competitive. Ginger says that people in Boulder strive to have the smallest amount of trash possible and fit it all in a teeny bag. She admits that, under social pressure, she will “recycle” things that maybe can’t be recycled. “If it’s questionable, I’ll just put it in and let them figure it out.”

We want to close the plastic loop, but we’re not there yet. We can help the plastic recycling industry go back to black by not mixing garbage with recycling. We want a plastic-free ocean, but we’re not there yet either. We can help by cleaning up plastic before it leaks into the ocean. It’s easy. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach, pick up trash and throw it away.