Disclaimer: if economics isn’t you forte, I promise I’ll make this simple.
I used to think that if I put my plastic bottle in the recycling bin, it guaranteed that it would get new life; I assumed that local governments were guardians of landfills. I know, looking back, that was a terrible assumption for a lot of reasons. The truth is, economics is a driving force behind whether or not that bottle actually gets a new life.
The skinny: The recycling industry is a for-profit business, just like your Walmarts and Chipotles. In fact, it’s a 200 billion dollar industry in the U.S. alone. Meaning, it’s a big game of supply and demand. Whether or not something gets recycled depends on if there’s a buyer of the material. In order for there to be a buyer, the cost of the recyclable material (including the cost to transport it) must be less than the cost to produce it new. When oil prices swing low and the cost of industrial production plummets, it becomes cheaper to just produce new material. In that case, we end up with a pretty bleak situation: all those plastic water bottles head straight for the trash while we burn some extra fossil fuel to create new ones.
Plastic is one of the biggest culprits since it’s become so cheap to make. So, rather than trying to track fluctuating oil prices or predict whether or not your plastic will actually get recycled, try to avoid plastic all together. If you can’t utilize a reusable bottle, opt for aluminum (it can be recycled indefinitely!) or glass.
The beauty in plastic avoidance: ultimately we as consumers are driving demand. If we stop buying (demanding) it, they won’t have reason to supply it.