Recycling (and China)
Whenever someone throws something away and separates it on a recycle bin, it is transported to a sorting facility.
There metal, paper and highly dense plastics are easily separated by different industrial processes, but low density plastic has to then be sorted by hand.
Plastic can be in three forms:
- Positive Value: It can be sold to companies for a slight (order of 10¢ per) profit. E.g., coca-cola bottles.
- Negative Value: Plastic so useless transporting it is too expensive for it to be worth the cost. It’s usually the thinnest, like plastic bags. They end up in landfills.
- Null-value: can’t be sold in the US, but can be transported to other places where it is actually worth something.
Since the 1990’s, due to rapid industrialization, China has needed a lot of raw materials, including low-value plastic.
Therefore, it started importing it and processing it, which was very slightly profitable to do thanks to low-wage labor, and very high demand not met by supply (making plastic from scratch with oil is usually cheaper than recycling due to processing and transporting fees).
In 2017 however, China reported to the WTO that it would no longer import plastics, reducing its imports by a factor of 99.1%, effectively to zero. This moved the bar of profitability for recycling up, and previously null-value plastic became negative value, and started piling up in the landfills.
While Malaysia and a few other countries have started filling the market niche China was occupying, it seems to be only a matter of time for those countries to also realize the externalities of recycling low-value plastic are more costly than justified by the very tight margins of the industry.
Notes rephrase and summarize this video from Wendover Productions