Dear Recyclebank: Why do recycled content products cost more? – Joanne
Dear Joanne: We’ve all been in the paper products aisle staring at the paper towels thinking, “Why are the paper towels made with recycled paper more expensive than the regular paper towels?” When recycled-content products first began to appear on shelves, you might have been inclined to think it was simply price gouging to make a profit. These days, many popular brands have recycled-content options on the market whose prices remain high, suggesting they really are based on an industry standard. Though it may seem unlikely, it usually takes more time, money, and processing to create goods from recycled stock than from virgin materials.
For virgin-stock paper, there are only 3 steps in the production process — logging, milling, and distribution. According to Anderberg Print, to produce paper from recycled material, 4 additional steps are required: Collection and recovery, sorting, adhesive/contamination removal, and de-inking and bleaching. With each additional step, additional costs are incurred through staffing, purchasing additional machinery, using energy to run the equipment, and transporting the materials from each step of the process to the next. However, as is standard for recycled-content products, the critical, most costly step in the paper recycling process is the removal of contaminants.
Oil-contaminated paper products must be removed from the batch lest they threaten the quality of the end product. According to a 2009 study done by the Container Recycling institute (CRI), paper mills that receive product from single-stream MRFs lose an average of 15% of the product due to contamination. These paper mills must then purchase and sort additional product to recoup the initial losses, and cover these expenses by charging more for the end product.
For plastics, the affordability of using recycled plastic mostly depends on the going rate for oil and natural gas. When oil and natural gas prices are low, it is more cost effective to purchase virgin plastic (which is also a petroleum product) than to purchase recycled plastic. Recycling centers want to make a profit, and when it costs more to recycle plastic (especially lower quality plastic) than to buy it new, recyclers lose their incentive to recycle. In a story for NPR’s Morning Edition, Tom Outerbridge, General Manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, remarked that in early 2016, prices for plastic bags were so low that his company had to send most of them to landfills.
Another substantial cost incurred in the recycling process is the cost to sort the recycled materials. According to the Huffington Post, 64% of communities with recycling programs have transitioned to single-stream programs to increase public participation in recycling. Unfortunately, single-stream often results in higher contamination rates, which leads to higher costs on recycled-content products. In the sorting process, plastics are separated from metals, paper, and glass, and then are also sorted according to their Resin Identification Code (RIC). When you add in losses of plastics covered in food waste, you end up losing about 25% of material by weight, says CRI. Losing this much material inevitably drives up costs.
Still, recycled-content products are better for the environment — even with all those extra steps, they still save resources and energy, and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions, compared to their non-recycled counterparts. Luckily for consumers (and for the planet), the market is beginning to demand more products made of post-consumer materials. Recycled-material goods are becoming more and more popular, and stores often have “green” sections where eco-conscious people can find more sustainable alternatives to every-day items. If you are dedicated to recycling, browse your local green aisle to do a cost comparison, but be sure to consider how much of the product is made from recycled goods too! If you’re looking for a new favorite, check out Recyclebank’s One Twine shop: Before we put products on our shelves we consider how products are made, used, and disposed of.