I was a junior high student in the 1970s when I was first exposed to the idea of recycling plastic. My family had already been recycling paper and glass for years, so the concept itself wasn’t exactly foreign to me. The interesting thing is that we were being told by the adults in our lives that recycling plastic was the only thing to save the planet. That was some 45 years ago.
Decades after the push to recycle plastic began, we still toss more than 90% of it into landfills. But guess what? Companies like Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics successfully recycle scrap industrial plastic at a profit. Meanwhile, paper and glass recycling continues to be very successful. We are even capable of recycling a whole host of metals, including copper and aluminum.
So what’s the deal? Why can we successfully recycle so many things but still fail so miserably when it comes to plastic? Because you need four things to make recycling work. By and large, most of them are missing in the plastics space.
- A Simple Process
The first thing you need to make recycling work is a simple process. The simpler, the better. On the other hand, implementing complex processes costs too much money and requires too big an investment to make it worthwhile.
Seraphim Plastics is a shining example of how to keep things simple. Their process for recycling industrial plastic waste in seven states is as simple as you can get. They pick up clean and sorted plastic from a client, haul it back to their processing facility, and send it through a series of grinders that reduce it to plastic regrind. They turn around and sell the regrind to manufacturers.
- An Efficient Process
Because Seraphim’s process is so simple, the company can do it efficiently. Moreover, their efficiency allows them to recycle tons of post-industrial plastics every year and make good money doing so. The key for them and their competitors is a simple and efficient process that gets the job done with very little waste.
- A Strong Market
Next up is a strong market for recycled products. Take paper and glass. We still recycle them today because the demand for recycled paper and glass is extremely strong. Why does that matter? Because recyclers need to sell their materials to make a profit. If they can’t sell, they go out of business.
Unfortunately, the demand for recycled plastics isn’t nearly as strong. The market will not support high prices for recycled plastics because manufacturers can purchase virgin materials so cheaply.
Companies like Seraphim succeed because the simplicity and efficiency of their process allows them to sell regrind pretty cheaply. Municipal recyclers cannot do that because they spend so much money on labor and transport.
- A Viable Reason
Finally, no recycling effort will be successful over the long haul in the absence of a strong motive to continue doing it. In Seraphim’s case, the motive is profit. That is not a bad thing. The ability to make a profit provides the motive for all sorts of manufacturing and services that make the world run. Remove the profit motive and there is no purpose in building, designing, manufacturing, etc.
Recycling works when all the four key elements described in this post are present. When one or more of the elements is missing, recycling is doomed to failure. That is exactly the case with post-consumer plastics. We have been trying to recycle them in all the wrong ways. Meanwhile, we seem to be able to recycle other materials just fine.