Even in normal times recycling faced challenges. According to a February Packaging World article on recycling, the majority of critical recycling issues in the U.S. are related to sorting and management of discarded plastics, because the capacity and capability of recycling centers is not adequate for the amount of recycling needed. And now many recyclers are closing shop during the pandemic, and even more waste is headed to landfills or incineration.
Consumer compliance and cost are other issues. With the pandemic, the amount of single use plastic and packaging is growing (think take out containers from all of the closed restaurants, water bottles and other wrapped items purchased by a virus-wary public, and a massive growth in medical waste), and if not disposed of properly by the consumer, will head for the landfill. Amazon and other e-retailers are hiring employees to keep up with the demand of consumers who are staying home and ordering what they need, and all of this additional e-commerce requires additional secondary packaging which must be properly disposed of.
Recycling has long had issues with financial feasibility. A ton of low-grade mixed plastics in CA would fetch $20 in 2017, but in 2018 it cost $10 to dispose of the same ton of mixed plastics. In 2018 China stopped purchasing the U.S. recyclable materials, increasing the amount of material that needed to be processed locally.
A pandemic-influenced drop in oil prices makes plastic even cheaper to produce, and according to a recent Wired article, as the Coronavirus has taken a toll on the price of oil, it will no longer “make economic sense for a company to process and sell recycled materials if they end up being more expensive than the virgin plastic another company is making.”
The Wired article quotes Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, who says that lightweighting plastic bottles – while saving money for the manufacturer – is also creating a product that “becomes progressively less profitable for a garbage company to bother recycling.”
Like so many things, the near-term outlook for recycling and waste-processing will need to recover from the pandemic’s wave, but the future still has hope. According to a new report on Sustainability from PMMI Business Intelligence, the global sustainable packaging market is expected to grew at a CAGR of approximately 6% by 2025, reaching $280 billion for packaging that is recyclable, biodegradable, compostable or defined as green.