Our Plastics Might Be Headed to the Landfill

Pile of plastic pet bottles

The Wall Street Journal posted a story yesterday about how the fall in oil prices has dragged down the price of virgin plastic erasing any advantage to the plastic recycler. In that same article, the writer suggested that oil prices are not only to blame for the collapse of plastic recycling but that government policy caused a mushroom effect in the US and Europe creating overcapacity.

Depending on whom you blame, it seems the result is that the cost to recycle plastic is more expensive than creating virgin plastic and that because of that the demand for recycled plastics have shrunk, bankrupting many recycling plants and crushing the value of collecting the material for profit.

Compared to lucrative recycling materials such as glass and metal, plastic has often been more challenging because of the complex sorting and processing, unfavorable economics and consumer confusion about which plastics can actually be recycled.

Waste Management and municipalities typically earn cash for selling recyclable materials creating a need for program that generates a profit. But no one wants to pay a premium for the recycled plastic even though it’s better for the environment. If dumping plastics in landfills is ultimately a cheaper method of disposal some municipalities may decide to forgo the recycling of plastics altogether because it will end up costing their residents money to continue to recycle the material.

The concept of uncoupling from plastic recycling programs is really a huge step backwards for our landfills and our environment. If there is no value in a plastics recycling program the plastics will be either tossed back in with our waste stream where they will take centuries to decompose in our landfills or worse, contribute to an even larger problem in our oceans where it will never degrade.

The current problems occurring at landfills all over the US however continues with our without the addition of the plastics back to our landfills. Now with the fate of our plastics final resting spot up for discussion there is certainly a potential for stronger odors and increased toxic runoff at these landfills which might make the current situation around the US even worse.

So, the battles will continue like they do in Tullytown, Pennsylvania and not because of the extra plastic.

For years the residential neighborhoods of Florence, New Jersey have alleged noxious odors have emanated form the Tullytown landfill. In October 2014, the Pennsylvania DEP issued a notice of violation, citing Waste Management for nuisance odors emanating from the landfill. In response, Waste Management made a number of improvements that have reportedly cost them millions of dollars.

What is worrisome is that if the likes of Waste Management stand to lose money on the crash of the plastic commodity will they be able to afford the clean up process at their landfills to keep the residents happy?

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