Houston — Recycling market veteran Nina Bellucci Butler was blunt in her assessment of recycling economics at Global Plastics Summit 2019.
"The shale gas boom has crushed the economics of plastics recycling," she said. "That's been the biggest impact."
The development of large supplies of affordable natural gas and oil from shale deposits throughout the U.S. has provided resin makers — primarily of polyethylene — with a low-priced feedstock. Resin producers have responded by adding billions of pounds of new capacity in recent years, keeping prices for virgin material lower than those for recycled resins.
"Scrap pricing has been higher than the price of oil since 2014," said Butler, CEO of the More Recycling consulting firm in Sonoma, Calif. "It's hard to compete when [post-consumer] HDPE is more expensive than virgin."
Butler has almost 20 years of experience in plastics recycling. She added that plastics also are challenged in the recycling market because they typically make up only 5 percent of a curbside mix of materials to be recycled. That's well behind the 70 percent share that paper and cardboard have in that same mix.
"We're in the midst of a very complex paradox," she said. "You can make a case to use plastics to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the shelf life of food so that it isn't wasted, but we haven't been able to recycle our way out."