The Myth Of Recycling: Markets, Pollution and Industry Spin

Why recycling plastic bags only worsens our plastic plight.

All around the country, states and municipalities are considering legislation to either impose a fee on or outright ban single use plastic shopping bags. The arguments for eliminating plastic bags are sundry – the effects on the environment, the cost to taxpayers for clogged sewer systems and landfilling, and the havoc plastic wreaks on the animal kingdom from ingestion and entanglement.

We just need more recycling! So goes the cry of industry attempting a bait and switch.

According to the EPA, 100 billion plastic bags are consumed each year in the United States. That’s the supply side; the demand by recyclers is less than 5% of that number in the United States. Recently, The Salem Statesman Journal published a piece about the need for curbside recycling to address the trauma that plastic pollution creates in watersheds and oceans. At first blush, it seems to make sense. The article states that right now, citizens of Marion county (where the paper serves) must bring their bags to The Marion County Transfer Station for recycling. The piece argues that this inconvenience is what is causing the low recycling rate. But what’s important to note is that “able to be recycled” and “is recycled” are two very different things.

I contacted the Marion County transfer station and was told that all the plastic bags they collect go to another company, Agri-Plas, Inc. So I called Agri-Plas to ask what they do with them. The answer was startling: nothing. Nothing? As Agri Plas rep. Jennifer Sanders says, “There is absolutely no market for HDPE (film, plastic wrap, bags) in the United States. Everything we’ve collected in the past two years, at least, is still sitting here. Sometimes China will take them, maybe.”

Recyclers are in the business of making money. They can’t make money on HDPE, so why is the industry arguing on their behalf for something they don’t even want?

The largest plastic bag recycling center in the world is in Indiana, called Hilex Poly. Here’s what I want to know: At $.10 per pound, bound and delivered for HDPE, are they turning a profit? That doesn’t even cover delivery costs. Unfortunately, we can’t look at the company’s finances. Hilex Poly is a private LLC held by another company, HPC, which manufactures virgin plastic products. Hilex appears to be a public relations front. On their website, they give no recycling rates of bags for the United States; they employ about one thousand people nationally. By comparison, California’s taxpayers spend $25 million a year to collect and bury 19 billion plastic bags.

Recycling is the worst kind of supply side economics. Supply will always exceed demand because consumption always outpaces recycling. Even if recycling rates go up, consumption rates go up faster. The problem is getting worse, not better, even with improved recycling. Every year, more bags are consumed and more virgin plastic is produced. If recycling were truly a solution, the market for virgin plastics would be in decline.  It’s not.

Here’s the problem: You can’t make a bag out of a bag. Virgin content is needed because the polymer chains that hold a bag together are weakened by the recycling process. Recycling is actually down-cycling in practice. Only products of less structural integrity can be made from the original material. No matter how much we recycle, there will still be a net higher amount of plastic bags on the planet. In the ocean. In the river. In the landfill. In the sewer.

What’s doubly insidious is that the industry is very well aware of this, as well as the economics regarding their products in the waste stream. The industry props up recycling as convenient strategy for passing the responsibility to the taxpayer and government. This is calculated. This is on purpose. And yes, it’s cynical. Millions of dollars are spent lobbying, creating misleading ads full of rainbows and flowers and happy talk, and in generous campaign contributions to policy-makers.  Wouldn’t this money be better spent actually trying to fix the problem? Yes, but with the fossil fuel system already in place and humming cheaply, the industry doesn’t want to fix what’s broken because it isn’t broken for the industry. Creating a new, sustainable infrastructure means vast amounts of capital. Sunk costs and time. Trial and error. Research and development. Tight margins. New competition. Imperfect data. And very few dollars.

Image: Oregon Ban the Bag