It’s been a tough year for plastic recycling, and the culprit is oil. Over the past two years, petroleum prices have plummeted, at one point dropping to 70% below June 2014 levels. As prices have fallen, they’ve dragged down the cost of virgin plastic, which is made from oil. In many areas, it now costs more to recycle old plastic than to make new containers.
Environmentally, there’s no question that recycling is the best method for dealing with waste. Recycling one ton of aluminum saves 14,000kWh of electricity – compared to making aluminum from raw materials – more energy than the average household uses in a year. Paper products are less profitable, but recycling one ton of cardboard still saves 390kWh – more than a week’s worth of electricity.
Some commodities are highly profitable: scrap aluminum, for example, is worth $1,491 per ton. Paper or cardboard sells for $90-$140 per ton. This nets recyclers a handy profit, even after processing costs.
When plastic was more expensive, recycling helped offset the expense of recycling less profitable materials, like glass. But as the value of plastic has dropped, it has had ripple effects across the recycling industry. Waste Management’s recycling division posted a $16m loss in the first quarter of 2016, and the company has shut almost 30% of its recycling facilities. Meanwhile, questions about the treatment of recycling workers and the large amounts of recycled glass and plastic that still go to landfill have tarnished its reputation.
The other problem is that many places only collect one or two types of plastic, instead of all products that could be processed. And areas that collect all plastics sometimes end up sending many types to landfills, even after consumers recycle them, because the returns are too low to make recycling it all economical.
But, as recycling costs have gone up, a combination of technological advancements and increased environmental regulation have made other disposal options increasingly viable. Here’s how three common waste management options stack up.
Incineration: Waste to Energy
Waste-to-energy (WTE) trash incineration, which burns waste to generate electricity, is a promising option. In addition to disposing of garbage and reducing landfill space, WTE generates 500kWh of electricity per ton of waste – roughly the same amount of power generated by a third of a ton of coal.
For all these benefits, however, WTE plants are rare: there are only 84 WTE facilities currently operating in the US. Florida’s Renewable Energy Facility Two, which opened last year, was the first US WTE plant to open in the past 15 years.
Part of the problem is that WTE plants are costly to construct, and companies often offset this by negotiating long-term contracts with cities. “Cities get locked into a contract and can end up on the hook for huge fees to waste processors, regardless of whether or not there is enough waste for them to process,” says Monica Wilson, US and Canada program director at Gaia, a nonprofit that fights waste-to-energy garbage incineration.
To read the full story, visit http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jun/14/green-waste-distribution-methods-recycling-plastic-oil-epa.