Many of us will have been making the most of the recent historic low oil price – I have stocked up on my heating oil, and my car costs much less to fuel up. It’s all good news isn’t it? Well actually, it’s not good news for the people who recycle our domestic plastics and the plastic waste produced by manufacturing. Lots of the plastics that we come into contact with each day are made from oil. When oil prices are at their typically high level, it’s worthwhile for the manufacturers of plastic items to make use of a proportion of recycled plastic to keep their costs down. The problem is, when the price of oil is as low as it is today, it’s actually cheaper for those same manufacturers to make new plastics rather than process recycled material.
The price of PET, one of the most common plastics used in drinks bottles, and one of the most frequently recycled plastics is a case in point. To make a bottle from brand new PET used to cost 15% more than making a bottle from recycled PET. The new bottle now costs 7% less than the recycled one – it’s simple economics as far as the plastics manufacturers are concerned, and they are reducing the amount of recycled plastics that they are buying.
The recycling continues – for now
All the plastic bottles that you and I carefully sort out ready for recycling are still being collected by our local councils and sent to plastics recyclers for processing. The plastics recyclers are still receiving them and shredding them, but the value of the shredded plastic, which should be being sold on to the plastics manufacturers, has hit rock bottom. There are reports of plastics recyclers holding warehouses full of bales of shredded plastic that has nowhere to go, and the pile is being added to every day.
Local councils have a duty to carry out kerbside collections and run the local recycling points, and much of the cost of delivering these services used to be covered by the money they made from the sales of recyclable materials. In fact, some councils have in the past managed to make quite a good and profitable business out of recyclables, which is great for the people who fund the services. However, because the price has collapsed, councils are still obliged to carry out the recycling collections, but they are currently losing money. If the drop in the value of recyclables continues, there are fears that some councils will be forced to actually pay someone to take away the recyclable materials and put it into landfill.
Once recyclables start to be dumped into landfill, there is a major environmental impact, and we also lay ourselves open to fines from the EU for failing to hit our recycling targets. What’s more, the plastics recyclers themselves are beginning to struggle to stay in business as their costs continue to increase and their profits dwindle. Who would have thought that an apparently welcome drop in oil costs could have such a dramatic impact on so many people? There is no easy answer to this one – we have to stop producing so much traditional plastic and concentrate on developing real alternatives, such as bio-plastic.