The wrong stuff: The misplaced focus on plastics recycling

There’s a quiet but widespread war on plastic happening, with fronts found on Capitol Hill and at statehouses around the country. Its target includes everything from fruit juice and energy drink  containers to plastic forks, plates and bowls — all listed specifically in the Senate bill filed last year by Democrats, including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and seven others. Their Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, filed in both 2020 and 2021, would impose recycling or compostable mandates on the packaging industry, reaching 65 percent by 2035.

Variations on the theme — including industry fees to subsidize recycling capacity — have been proposed in states from Maine to New York to Colorado. One version of an “extended producer responsibility” law has been adopted in California. That state will force industry to pay $500 million annually (2027-2037) to a Producer Responsibility Organization, which would pledge to meet stiff recycling targets and invest in a plastic recycling industry that currently doesn’t meaningfully exist.

It’s another version of legislators imagining they can, like environmental genies, call into existence an industry that doesn’t exist — not unlike eco-dreams of net-zero emissions and carbon capture. But the obsession with reusing  plastic in a so-called “circular economy” is even worse because it overlooks a recycling target that makes far more sense for environmental, economic and national security reasons, and for which a functioning market exists: electronics such as smartphones.

There’s no doubt that plastic pollution can be problematic, on land and at sea. But we’d be far better off sending plastic waste to America’s abundant landfill space. That’s because there is no realistic market for recycled plastic. It’s simply far less expensive to make new plastic than to refine existing stock. “Virgin plastics” are made from byproducts of oil and gas refining, which occurs anyway, and are of higher quality. Markets tend to reward products that are cheaper and better.

Even the author of the California bill concedes as much: “The cost of recycling exceeds the scrap value of the plastic material so the markets for plastic packaging that were previously considered recyclable have been lost.” That’s why the plastic recycling industry requires mandates and subsidies. In fact, any municipality that dispatches a special truck to pick up plastic is subsidizing a money-losing proposition. Ever since China, in what it calls Operation National Sword, closed its borders to American plastic in 2017, it has made economic sense for cities to send plastics to landfills — which these days are largely safe and sanitary. 

Think of it this way: If the cost of virgin plastic were to increase, a plastic recycling industry undoubtedly would spring to life. Absent such a price signal, recycling requires subsidies of one kind or another to discourage the use of products which the sponsor of the California legislation actually believes “plague human health.” 

Yet, as progressives target plastic they give a free pass to materials that actually have market value and are generally being tossed into the trash and landfills: smartphones and other electronics. So-called “e-waste” is literally a gold mine that municipalities are failing to tap. The innards of smartphones and such contain platinum, gold, silver and rare earth minerals that are much in demand.

A February 2020 analysis (in the journal Waste Management) of the e-waste stream finds 56 elements in electronic devices routinely sent to dumps. These include “14 rare earth elements, six platinum group metals, 20 critical metals, and 16 other elements, including some precious metals.” The study also finds that 1 kilogram of mixed e-waste — hard drives, cell phones and computers separated from the general municipal waste stream — can be worth $168. The resources in a similar amount of hard drives are valued — again, if isolated for recovery — at $454. Not only are such materials valuable but they must be sourced in unfriendly countries (e.g., China) or conflict zones (Democratic Republic of Congo).

Recycling e-waste should not require subsidies at all. Localities simply would have to collect it separately and contract with those who would reuse it. This is not eco-fantasy. As one industry source puts it:  “The global e-waste market was estimated at $49 million in 2020 and is expected to grow to $143 million by 2028. Ever increasing demand and scarcity of rare metals has been leading to a rapid rise in prices for these metals.” Online ads promise “top dollar” for such stuff.

The federal Department of Energy has even suggested that a new generation of incinerators could capture such metals by processing their ash. Yet, the California EPR legislation actually bans new waste-to-energy plants.

When it comes to recycling, plastic may seem to be the obvious target. But products for which there are markets — including paper and aluminum — have a way of finding them. It’s time to stop fighting an unwinnable plastic recycling battle and, instead, start to mine for recycled gold.

Howard Husock is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the paper, “Municipal Recycling and Electronic Waste: An Environmental and Financial Opportunity.” 

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