I remember my grade school teachers telling me that recycling plastic was a critical part of saving the planet from certain environmental collapse. That was a long time ago. In fact, I first learned about recycling in the 1970s. These days though, we are singing a different tune. What we thought we knew about plastic recycling doesn’t match reality.

As I see it, plastic recycling is a story of feast or famine. It either works extremely well or turns out to be a colossal failure. But none of it is happenstance. None of it is coincidental or a matter of chance. There are well-defined reasons explaining why some recycling programs succeed and others do not.

Success in the Industrial Sector

Plastic recycling is most likely to succeed in the industrial sector. Plastic waste generated by manufacturers, engineering firms, construction companies, etc. are known as post-industrial plastics. Such plastics are readily recycled by companies like Seraphim Plastics.

Based in Tennessee, Seraphim Plastics buys loads of plastic purge, manufacturing cutoffs, plastic pallets, etc. from sellers in seven states. Everything they buy is transported back to one of their facilities where it is transformed into plastic regrind by way of a series of grinders and magnets.

Here’s why Seraphim Plastics’ business model works:

  • Mechanical recycling is simple.
  • Mechanical recycling is not labor intense.
  • Transportation costs are kept to a minimum.
  • Sellers handle cleaning and sorting.
  • The market for regrind remains strong.

Companies like Seraphim Plastics literally have everything going for them. That allows them to make good money and keep industrial plastic waste out of landfills at the same time. As long as there is a market for what they do and they can make money doing it, they will continue recycling industrial plastic waste by the ton.

Failure in the Municipal Sector

If industrial plastic recycling is the feast part of the equation, the famine part is municipal recycling. Plastics tossed into municipal recycling bins are known as post-consumer plastics. They cover everything from plastic water bottles to take-out food containers to the plastic envelopes and packages consumer products are shipped in.

Post-consumer plastic recycling is what my grade school teachers were talking about when they encouraged me to be a planet saver. But in the 50 years since, we Americans have collectively done a colossally poor job of keeping plastic out of landfills and incinerators.

We have dutifully checked the numbers on the bottoms of our plastic products. We have placed those products in curbside recycling bins faithfully. We have done everything we have been told to do, yet 90% of those consumer plastics end up in landfills anyway.

It’s Not Economically Feasible

So why doesn’t municipal plastic recycling work? Why can’t cities and counties make just as much money recycling as Seraphim Plastics? It boils down to municipal processes and procedures. They just aren’t economically feasible.

Seraphim Plastics doesn’t have to spend a dime on cleaning and sorting. All of that is handled by the companies they purchase plastic waste from. On the other hand, municipal recycling programs need to sort and clean everything they pick up. It is a costly endeavor due to the amount of labor involved.

When all is said and done, municipalities spend more money than they make on the deal. They cannot sell the recycled materials at a high enough price to cover their costs. So there is literally no market for what they sell.

Plastic recycling is a story of feast or famine. Now you know why. If you do it right, it works. If you do it wrong, it fails.


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