This article is an update to our 2018 article on the U.S. recycling crisis that sprang from China’s National Sword policy. Read the earlier piece here.
Earlier this week, Reuters published a special report on how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the global recycling industry—and its findings are not pretty.
“The combination of the impact of COVID-19 and low oil prices is like a double whammy” for plastic recycling, said Circulate’s CEO, Rob Kaplan. “We’re seeing massive disruption.”
Single-use plastic consumption has at least tripled since March, thanks to disposable face masks and gloves, takeout containers, and plastic shipping material for online orders. A lot of this trash cannot be recycled and has ended up in landfills—or if you’re in Fairfax County, it has been incinerated in the Covanta waste-to-energy facility, the biggest source of air pollution in the county.
What can be recycled is being hauled to material recovery facilities (MRFs), like the American Recycling Center in Manassas. These facilities are currently overwhelmed with waste, not just because they are receiving so much more recyclable trash from residential customers, but also because recycling markets for plastic are shrinking—by as much as 60% for some U.S. companies.
Oil prices have dropped so low since the start of the pandemic that it is now a lot cheaper to make new, virgin plastic than it is to recycle plastic. Plastic bottles made of recycled material, for example, are now 83–93% more expensive than those made from virgin material.
Even before the pandemic began, the oil and gas industry—recognizing that the world is shifting away from using fossil fuels for energy—was building massive facilities for making new plastics. Plastics is an area where oil and gas companies expect they will continue to see growth. In fact, petrochemicals “are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050.”
The bottom line: Plastic recycling is in crisis worldwide, and industry is accelerating its production of virgin plastics to make the plastic pollution problem infinitely worse.
More than ever before, plastic pollution is not just a conservation issue but a climate issue and a social justice issue too.
If we stay on this course, in the next 10 years, global emissions from plastic will grow 69%, to 1.3 billion tons annually—the equivalent emissions of 300 coal-fired power plants.
And these massive new petrochemical facilities I mentioned? They are springing up in environmental justice communities along the Ohio River and from the Gulf Coast up the Mississippi River (aka Cancer Alley). This firsthand account of plans to build a new Formosa Plastics Corporation plant in St. James Parish, in Cancer Alley, is downright chilling.
What can we do to help solve this problem? We can support the environmental justice communities like St. James Parish that are fighting against polluting petrochemical infrastructure.
The problem is this: Formosa Plastics is trying to build a massive petrochemical plant on the Mississippi River in St. James Parish. This facility will burden this largely African American community—which has seen its share of industrial pollution already—with significant greenhouse gas emissions and toxic run-off. And all to produce more single-use plastic that will ultimately end up in waterways across America, including here in Virginia.
We all have a stake in this fight.
More resources on recycling and the recycling crisis:
- Broken (Netflix series), Episode 4: Recycling Sham
- The Great Recycling Con, New York Times
- Life in Plastic: California’s Recycling Woes (26 minutes)
- The Trash Crash, What Next podcast (17 minutes)
- Waste Picker Economies, Plastisphere podcast (26 minutes)
By Julie Kimmel