May 23, 2019

The Truth About the Global Recycling Market

“If you wanted to recycle a Coke bottle, the spring of 2011 was a great time to do it. That spring, every soda bottle you dropped into the translucent blue bag in your kitchen was worth about eight times what it had been just 2½ years earlier, and four times what it would be five years later. Municipal recycling agencies (and town dumps) found themselves sitting on heaps of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic that could be spun, Rumpelstiltskin-like, into gold.

But for the companies that actually do the recycling, that spring was not so good at all. Oil had reached a two-year high, and soda bottles are made of PET, which, like all plastics, is basically just processed oil. As the price of “raw” plastic increased, recycled plastic—a natural substitute for manufacturers—became more expensive too. What was good for cities’ recycling programs was bad for the companies that did business with them. The Coca-Cola Company’s Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, which had opened in 2009 to recycle old soda bottles into new ones, idled as recycled PET plastic prices went through the roof.

We tend to think of recycling (abstract noun) as an idea in which we are deeply, perhaps morally, invested. But recycling is also a concrete noun, a word for physical stuff with a supply chain full of rivalrous buyers and sellers whose interests are often at odds. And it is also a verb—one we use to describe what we do in our kitchens and on our streets, though that is only the first step of a Coke bottle’s long, uncertain path toward reincarnation.”

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