Greenpeace USA shocked the sustainability community when they released an October 2022 report declaring that consumer plastic recycling has been a colossal failure since its inception. People like me, who grew up in the 1970s and were taught that recycling could save the planet, found ourselves dealing with the reality that we were lied to. But further analysis demands an answer to the following question: what if consumer plastics were recycled like their industrial counterparts?
The question is legitimate when you consider the fact that there are dozens of companies like Seraphim Plastics located around the country. These companies make a good living by recycling postindustrial plastics through a simple but effective mechanical recycling process. They are keeping tons of industrial plastic scrap out of landfills and incinerators every year.
So what is the secret? Why can Seraphim successfully recycle plastic, but your typical municipal recycling program cannot? It is all in the process – which brings us back to the idea of consumer plastics being recycled the same way.
If consumer plastics were recycled the same way as their industrial counterparts, the process would start with individual people, like you and me, making the effort to actually clean and sort our plastic waste. And when I say clean, I do not mean casually rinse out the ketchup bottle. I mean clean it thoroughly so there is no contamination.
In terms of sorting, we would sort different types of plastics into separate containers and make every effort to guarantee those containers did not get contaminated as well. When the recycling company came to do its pickup, the plastic would go straight from curb to recycling process with no intermediate action required.
If consumer plastics were recycled the same way as their industrial counterparts, recycling companies would pay us for our plastics. It would be a nominal amount for sure, but payment would still be made. Seraphim Plastics, and other companies like them, actually pay for plastic scrap. Payment is the incentive for sellers to clean and sort their plastic waste.
If consumer plastics were recycled the same way as their industrial counterparts, manufacturers would end the practice of mixing plastics in their products. A single type of plastic would be used to make a single package or consumer product. That way, sorting needs are kept to a minimum.
Incidentally, they would also stop mixing plastics with other materials considered contaminants. Instead of sticking paper labels on plastic bottles with glue, they would find a way to print directly on the bottle with ink that would not interfere with recycling.
Finally, there would be no local government involvement if consumer plastics were recycled the same way as their industrial counterparts. The problem with government is that it cannot do anything cost-effectively. Government doesn’t make money, either. It only spends money.
A key factor in Seraphim Plastics’ success is the ability of the private sector to do things at a profit. Private sector companies have an incentive to solve problems, boost efficiency, increase productivity, etc. They either do so or lose money. Government has no such incentive, which explains why the best they can do with money is waste it.
It is fair to say that consumer plastic recycling has been a colossal failure. By the same token, industrial plastic recycling has proved rather successful over the last five decades. The only difference between the two is how we go about it. We could recycle consumer plastics for a profit if we really wanted to.