Recent stories in The New York Times and The Atlantic are raising the alarm with China’s 2018 recycling ban, changing the dynamics and economics for recycling. These stories point to broken economics that have resulted in some municipalities deciding to end their recycling programs which leads to more confusion about how to recycle and more plastic waste going to where we don’t want it — landfills and into the world’s ocean.
It’s great to see news coverage that calls attention to this often overlooked business opportunity and the existing challenges. But I would argue that this emphasis on the fiscal health of the recycling business in the U.S. is both too much “chicken little” and, more importantly – for investors looking to find investible solutions to the world’s environmental challenges – the focus is also misplaced.
It’s not that costs have soared for recycling, it’s that revenues are going down. And there are still plenty of recyclers around the country making money (check out Balcones Resources in Austin and Lakeshore Recycling Services in Chicago). The real question is – should we really be surprised that the industry whose business model and technology is stuck in the 1990s is falling on hard(er) times?
In both the U.S. and Europe, we have a legacy of larger recycling infrastructure built for heavy, rigid packaging. While we’ve innovated a lot on material design and packaging and even created newer plastic materials that reduce overall carbon footprints, like flexible packaging, we haven’t innovated enough on how to recycle and reuse these materials. Despite the fact that most of the plastics used today are flexible and the chemical compositions of these plastics are more complex. Legacy businesses haven’t shifted quickly enough to handle this waste. On top of this, until the 2018 ban, China was taking about half of the recycling waste from the U.S. and other countries. From a pure business management perspective, these recyclers were over reliant on one customer (i.e., export markets in China) which is always a risky business model.
Fixing the waste problem is also not going to happen by simply banning products, like plastic bags or straws, two trends that have gained favor recently, as noted by The New York Times. While bans have been helpful at raising the visibility of the ocean plastic waste problem, in particular, bans mean by limiting choice and innovation, without new products made from better materials being readily available. We must avoid regrettable substitution, and such ingrained behaviors won’t change overnight. Meanwhile, a garbage truck load of plastic enters the ocean every minute.