NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Economic Reality Limits Plastics Recycling

April 1, 2002

Recycling plastics would seem to make sense. But in practice, the economic hurdles are substantial and plastic wastes, for the most part, continue to wind up in landfills.

  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 95 percent of the 24.2 million tons of plastic waste generated each year goes unreclaimed.
  • For example, DuPont has reclaimed 72 million pounds of carpet in the last 10 years -- but that's a tiny fraction of the four billion pounds of carpet that wound up in landfills each year.

Few companies have achieved the economies of scale that might make recycling pay.

  • Manufacturers say they cannot get a stream of high-quality material at a reasonable price.
  • While recycling companies say they cannot guarantee such a stream until sales grow robust enough to drive down costs.

Even recycling's most ardent supporters often squabble among themselves.

  • Although 10 states have laws that require return deposits on beverage bottles, beverage companies dislike that approach -- while other users of recycled plastics want to see more states adopt them.
  • Environmental advocates want beverage companies to recycle old bottles into new ones -- while carpet companies want the old bottles as feedstock for carpet fibers.

But it is costly to collect, transport, sort and clean discarded plastics. And every time oil prices fall, recycled plastic loses value.

Source: Claudia H. Deutsch, "Plastic Recycling Is a Work in Progress," New York Times, March 30, 2002.

 

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