This post is Part 2 of a two-part series, explaining why some recyclables are more valuable than others, and how recycling works financially. Be sure to check out Because You Asked: The Value of Recycling, Part 1, where we take a look at the recycling process and how municipalities and recyclers work together. Now we’ll pick up where we left off:
The Value of Recyclables
Right now, recycled cardboard, paper, aluminum, and some plastics typically sell for more than the amount it costs to process them, so they’re profitable to recycle. Recycled glass, though, isn’t really selling; processing glass often results in a significant loss for a recycling company, even eliminating profits.
Lots of things affect the value of each recyclable material. There are quality issues, but also things like world events, and trends in the products we use and buy everyday. Here’s a look at some examples.
Glass and Quality: If recyclers can’t produce a high-quality material, manufacturers are less likely to buy it. To safely make new glass from recycled glass, the cullet (crushed recycled glass) that goes into it usually needs to be composed of just one type of glass — so manufacturers looking to buy cullet from MRFs need it separated by type. But during the recycling process, different types of glass often break and mix together along the way, becoming more and more difficult to separate and adding processing time and cost. Add to that the fact that glass is so heavy — which means it costs recyclers more in fuel to transport — and you wind up with a recyclable that is hard to sell and expensive to process. For recyclers, right now, glass is a low value recyclable.
Plastic and World Events: World events like the recent drop in oil prices have a direct impact on the value of recyclables. Take plastic, which is derived from oil. A few months ago, when oil prices were relatively stable (and higher), it cost manufacturers less to make new plastic products from recycled plastic than from virgin materials — so recyclers could price their recycled plastic competitively. But now, the fall in oil prices has made it cheaper to make plastic from scratch, erasing the recyclers’ previous advantage. For recyclers, right now, plastic is a valuable recyclable — but less so than it used to be.
Paper and Consumer Behavior: The things we (consumers) buy and use everyday affect the recycling market as well. Remember how recyclers sell recyclables by weight? Lately, they’ve been processing more total things (resulting in added processing time and costs) and ending up with less total weight to sell because what we buy (and then toss) is changing so much: The decline in print media means there is less newsprint to recycle (that paper is heavy!), while an increase in online shopping contributes to there being more lightweight corrugated cardboard used and recycled. But paper is relatively easy to recycle, and there’s still a strong market for it. For recyclers, right now, paper is very valuable recyclable — but there’s less of it to sell.
While recycling is good for the environment, processing one material (like glass) may not be financially feasible unless a lot of another, more valuable material (like aluminum, which we didn’t cover above but which is very valuable) is also recycled.
Beyond Material Value
Buying and selling recyclable materials is just one component of the whole recycling market. Environmental reasons to recycle are (of course) just as important as the financial ones, and often present significant savings potential of a different variety. When manufacturers use recycled material instead of making new material, there are huge energy savings: up to 92% energy savings for aluminum, and 87% for plastic. And by providing material for new products, recycling also reduces the need to use our already diminishing virgin natural resources — including fossil fuels, which are used to create almost everything we own — in turn reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Sometimes, environmental innovation can play a surprise part in the recycling market as well. Take the not-quite-foil, not-quite-plastic pouches you buy coffee in: Packaging like this is great for the environment — that coffee pouch can be made and used and sent to the landfill and still produce 75% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than its steel can counterpart would — but often times it’s not recyclable, while its predecessor (that steel coffee can) was. So where we have a boon for the environment, we also have a new material in search of a market for recycling or reuse, too.
That recycling or reuse potential creates jobs, too: Every 10,000 tons of waste creates 10 recycling jobs or 75 materials reuse jobs. If the same amount of waste went to a landfill instead, only one job would be created. Last year, the recycling industry employed over 1.1 million people.
Our Part in the Recycling Market
Just like any other market, the recycling market presents opportunities for municipalities, recyclers, manufacturers, and us. As consumers and recyclers, there are lots of ways we can help the recycling economy — thereby ensuring recycling is a viable option for years to come. Here are just a few:
- Only recycle what’s accepted by your hauler. Anything else risks costing extra time and money for them to process.
- Try to buy products that are recyclable, rather than ones that have to go in the trash (except in cases like those unrecyclable, but green, pouches).
- Look for products that are made with recycled material. This helps create demand for more recyclables.
- Reuse less valuable recyclables, like glass, as much as possible. When shopping, look for products (especially drinks) in plastic or aluminum bottles, which are more often accepted for recycling.