You have undoubtedly heard the phrase ‘money talks’. No doubt you also know what it means. Those who have the money generally make the rules. The rest of us are left follow along. Let us take that principle and apply it to recycling and waste reduction.
We have been hearing a lot about failed recycling programs lately. Consumer recycling has never been all that productive in this country, but municipalities being unable to keep up with recycling and waste removal in the wake of the COVID pandemic have brought the issue back to the forefront. Truth be told, consumer recycling accomplishes very little. It has always been that way.
Why don’t consumer recycling programs achieve their intended goals? We can blame consumer behavior. We can blame corporate America for continually producing single-use packaging. We can even blame government for not being able to run recycling programs efficiently. At the root of it all is one thing: money.
Consumers Want Cheap Goods
Recycling plastic waste profitably is possible. Just look at the commercial sector. Companies like Seraphim Plastics, based in Tennessee and active in seven states, make a tidy profit picking up commercial plastic waste, grinding it down, and reselling it to manufacturers. So why can’t we do the same in the consumer arena? It starts with consumers themselves. They want cheap goods.
Our introduction to cheap goods was brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent ability to mass-produce. With mass production came efficiency and lower costs. Over time, the combination of mass production and lower prices created the disposable mindset that now permeates society.
We want cheap. And quite frankly, manufacturers give us what we want by producing inexpensive single-use items that are easily thrown away without bothering the conscience.
Corporate America Wants Profit
Moving on, corporate America exists to generate profit. Their profits go up when they can reduce costs and maintain production. It is natural for them to choose the least costly option for every manufacturing decision. This includes the plastics they buy to manufacture their products.
The recycled plastic generated by municipal recycling programs costs a lot more than virgin plastic. Choosing the latter is a purely business decision. It just doesn’t make financial sense for companies to spend more money on material that doesn’t offer the same quality or integrity. So they don’t.
The Government Is a Financial Waste Machine
Note that we cannot ignore the government’s role here. Government is incapable of doing anything cost-effectively. There are too many hands in the proverbial pie. Municipal recycling programs cannot produce recycled plastic cheap enough to sell because their overhead costs are too high. Simply put, they spend too much money to create recycled materials nobody wants to buy.
So why is commercial plastic recycling so effective? We go back to the same thing: money. In the commercial sector, companies like Seraphim have figured out a way to collect and recycle plastic waste cost-effectively. That allows them to keep their own prices low enough to make plastic regrind attractive to manufacturers.
Likewise, manufacturers have an incentive to buy regrind. By mixing it with virgin plastic, they can better control their own manufacturing costs. The result is higher profits.
Finally, the companies that actually recycle commercial plastic make money by selling their waste to recyclers. Even in cases where they do not make a lot, they still avoid having to pay trash haulers to take away their plastic waste.
When money talks, recycling usually walks. Until we change the fact that consumer recycling is a money-losing proposition, it is never going to succeed.