How To Make Plastic Packaging Recycling Economically Viable

Why is plastic packaging so ubiquitous? Because it’s highly functional at a low cost. Virtually nothing else delivers the benefits of polyethylene and its cousins at the same low price. It’s very beneficial to us from that perspective. The widespread usage has resulted in the vast amount of plastic trash that seriously threatens our environment. We must find solutions to this problem so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits without destroying the earth. One possibility is a new tax, as explained below.

Plastic recycling has not been able to produce the results originally hoped for. There are several reasons for that, all related to cost. Recycling is expensive and inefficient. Some municipalities have abandoned recycling their trash because it costs more than just dumping. When municipal recycled materials go to a recycling station much of it (maybe most) ends up in the landfill anyway.

I have been in the plastic packaging business for 50+ years, I have spoken to and taught industry professionals about environmental issues, and I have seen recycling operations firsthand. Based on that experience this is what I have learned: For the most part, after your recycled trash is initially sorted into different materials, all the plastic pieces go into a single waste stream.

You are probably familiar with the industry code of seven numbers that appear on the bottoms of plastic containers. Six of those numbers identify the specific plastic material (the original resin) and the seventh means “other”.

That stream of plastic trash is dumped on a conveyor belt staffed by a team of people stationed on both sides. Theoretically they should sort the materials into the individually coded source materials. This is because our current technology allows for recycling to occur only with the same materials. So, the number that signifies PET (polyethylene terephthalate) should be separated from the PP (polypropylene) and that should be separated from the LDPE (low density polyethylene). The reality is that those workers, because of the speed of the conveyor belt, cannot attempt to pick up each container and read the symbol on the bottom. They sort by visually recognizing some of the soda bottles (PET) and milk containers (LDPE). All the rest spills off the end of the conveyor and goes into the landfill.

The two that are sorted are then sent to a recycler who melts them down and creates the recycled resin that is used to produce recycled products (but not food containers, as recycled plastics are not approved for that purpose).

In the end great quantities of the unsorted materials go to the landfill, and that which is recycled results in a very costly resin that cannot compete with the cost of virgin materials (currently selling for around 50 cents a pound). The recycled resin, at the end of the process, costs more than the virgin materials!

What can be done? Well for one thing we need to provide funding for research to find a way to recycle all plastic materials into one common usable product – maybe for uses that are simpler and more basic than packaging. Think building materials like bricks.

How do we fund that when there are so many other important priorities? Here’s an idea: Impose a 100% tax on the virgin materials! That would accomplish several goals: it might have an impact on usage, it will create a more competitive market for (untaxed) recycled materials, and it would provide needed funds for municipalities, some of which should be earmarked for the research mentioned above.

Wouldn’t that double the price I pay at the supermarket for my XYZ brand of shampoo or other consumer product? No. Think about this. Suppose we create a model of a bottle of shampoo that sells at the store for $2.50. In a typical situation that equates to a price from the manufacturer of about $1.00. Let’s use an index cost of 15% for the packaging – that means the manufacturer is paying 15¢ for his plastic bottle. We can assume that the resin cost of that bottle is probably about half of the total cost or about 7¢. So, if there is a 100% tax on the resin that make the resin content of the bottle 14¢. The bottle cost would now increase to reflect that cost increase plus a margin that the manufacturer puts on his cost. So maybe the bottle costs 25¢ or 30¢. The manufacturer now sells his shampoo for more than $1 wholesale. Maybe $1.25? that makes the retail price go up to maybe $2.99.

So, the consumer pays a little more, but the world benefits by making a better market for recycled plastics, which would incentivize more people to participate in the recycling process.