Why the Plastic Recycling Market Just Crashed 

By Sarah Zhang on at

Recycling is no longer just a nice thing that hippies do. Recycling is a business; a massive one whose wheels are greased by money, money, and more money. Nowhere is this more apparent right now than in the recycled plastic market, where prices have plunged 50 per cent in just six months.

“One day it’s profitable to recycle a bottle, and the next day some global economic number changes and that same bottle is trash,” says Stacey Vanek Smith in NPR’s Planet Money podcast. That global economic number is the price of oil, which you may have noticed has also plunged. That’s been great for drivers filling up the petrol station, but it’s also hit the recycling industry hard. It’s all interconnected.

Our plastic bags, for example, are sent off to China, where they become anything from toothbrushes to carpet. But plastic bags are especially hard to clean, so they’re relatively expensive to recycle. Now that oil is cheap, it’s also cheap to make new plastic. China doesn’t want to buy our gunky old plastic bags anymore.

To make matters worse for recyclers, paper has also taken a hit recently for the boring old reason of the Euro getting weak. The full (non-boring!) Planet Money episode connects the dots to explain the problem with paper. It is just another example of our massive global economy, connected by trash. [Planet Money]

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