Recyclers say high-quality plastics have lost most value with falling gas prices
The cost of one barrel of gas has fallen to under $30 for the first time in twelve years. It was not so long ago in 2014 when oil prices took a sharp fall in the fourth quarter from their peaks at $112 and $105 per barrel (bbl) to $62/bbl and $59/bbl. The car industry is rejoicing, but your local recycling plant is nowhere near as jubilant.
To minimize New York’s truck traffic and air pollution, Sims Metal Management expanded into curbside recycling back in 2003. They recycle more than 200,00 tons of New Yorkers’ plastic, glass and metal waste, but that landscape is rapidly transforming with falling gas prices.
Recycling is a for-profit business: recyclers collect our used containers and bottles to be sorted and cleaned to sell to companies looking to melt those down to make new things, like toothbrushes and fleece jackets.
Sorting and cleaning plastics can get costly when oil is this cheap, so spending on recycled plastics makes less sense and demand drops. Recycling businesses can’t afford sorters and cleaning staff as they struggle to negotiate for a mere penny – or less – per pound.
As Tom Outerbridge at Sims Recycling in Brooklyn explains to NPR, “It costs about as much to clean and sort a plastic bag as it does a detergent bottle, but you get way less plastic from the bag.” Sims Municipal Recycling is not alone.
Outerbridge hates the idea of even the cheapest plastic bags ending up in the landfill, and even invested in a “picker” to grab non-recyclable items off the conveyor belt. He wanted to offer “super clean plastic bags” at a premium. That was back when oil was at $60 a barrel. At $30 a barrel, the picker was long gone. And as the falling gas prices dive even deeper, high quality plastic like rigid Polyethylene Terephthalate piles up at landfills.
As competing consolidation plants go under, more plastic comes in. While this is good news for some, the truth is that recycling really can’t turn around until oil gets more expensive.