Low oil prices impact plastic recycling

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Almost everyone is enjoying the benefits of falling oil prices. This means more money in our pockets and less money at the pumps, but companies around the world that recycle plastic are experiencing the negative effects of low oil prices.


Plastic is always a difficult material to sell. There are so many sizes, shapes, and types of plastic, and there is lots of confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. This confusion and complexity results in many bales of plastic being contaminated with unrecyclable items. Sorting through contaminated bales and paying to dispose of the unrecyclable items increase plastic recycling costs. When oil prices drop, it becomes cheaper to make new plastic containers with virgin oil and natural gas than with recycled plastic.


In addition to low oil prices, the economy in China has taken a nosedive. As the world’s largest recycler and producer of plastic, the weak Chinese economy has further decreased the demand for recycled plastics. These two factors have resulted in the halt of the purchase of most recycled plastics other than #1 water bottles, #2 detergent bottles, and #2 milk jugs. This means that virtually no #3-#7 plastics are currently being recycled.


What kind of plastics do you use? Perhaps you regularly use yogurt containers, microwave dinner trays, berry clamshells, pill bottles, plastic cups, and juice bottles. The list goes on and on and could fill the entire page. While many recyclers, including Sedona Recycles, have been stockpiling this material until markets return, many have reached their capacity and others have been landfilling the plastics that the public so dutifully “recycled.”


Plastic is everywhere. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more plastic in the oceans of the world than fish. The change of fortune for recycled plastic markets has meant that much more of this material is ending up in the landfill or dumped. We now have no game plan for how to handle this ubiquitous material that we have developed such a dependency on. There seems to be no stopping the production of more #3-#7 plastics. The manufacturers seem to think that if they put a little symbol with a number on it, they are free and clear of responsibility for its proper disposal, but it is just not that simple.


The job of recycling plastics keeps getting harder and harder. Just when we think we have a handle on the types of plastics that are being produced, the industry adds combined resins, metal components, and “compostable” plastics to the mix. I liken it to a funnel: they pour the plastics in the large opening when they manufacture them and the opening keeps narrowing until it gets to us, the people responsible for the empty package. The result is that all this material is backed up at our end with no recyclers willing to process it.


We have to be increasingly creative if we want to see these plastics recycled. In the past year, we have changed our sorting system multiple times to satisfy the whims of the market. We have bales of lovely, clean plastics in our yard and the company that used to take this material now wants us to pay them $40 a ton to warehouse it with the hope of a returning market. It has become much cheaper to landfill plastics than to collect and process them and that is what a lot of recyclers are doing.


Sedona Recycles has never landfilled recyclables, but we only have so much room and something has to give. So I would like to ask all of you to do your part by really looking at what you are buying.


  • Purchase milk in plastic jugs rather than unrecyclable cartons.
  • Buy products packaged with post-consumer recycled content to increase the demand for recyclable materials.
  • Use reusable containers to buy in bulk and avoid the purchase of products in plastic altogether.
  • Buy items in glass and steel; they are safer and easier to recycle.
  • Carry your own take out containers when you eat out.
  • Pay attention to the plastics you are using and avoid plastics #3-#7.
  • Don’t buy drinks, baby food, or pet food in pouches. They are never recyclable.
  • Use reusable bags instead of plastic. Recycle any plastic bags you use at the grocery store.


All of us have the ability to reduce our use of plastic. We all need to make an effort to do so because it is the most complicated and least resilient recycling stream. Let’s put our oil in our cars, our natural gas in our heaters, and reserve plastics for the necessary and life-saving applications they are needed for. I, for one, want to see fish when I snorkel, not empty yogurt containers. I hope you feel the same way.


For more information about what we accept at Sedona Recycles and which plastics to avoid, visit our website www.sedonarecycles.org or call (928) 204-1185.


by Jill McCutcheon, Sedona Recycles

Sedona Red Rock News

February 17, 2016