The oil crash has created a plastic recycling trap

“Momentum seems to be moving back to single-use plastic, but I’m hoping it’s just temporary,” said Rob Goodwin, president of OceanCycle, which works to stop ocean-bound plastic.

As new plastic prices fell, recycled plastic suppliers in Asia lost huge orders almost overnight, he said. European companies required by law to use a percentage of recycled plastic in their bottles are some of the only steady sources of demand left, Goodwin said.


Still, in Europe this month it costs a lot more to source recycled plastic than virgin plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s a major decoupling, as the two commodities used to be priced much closer together.

The pricing shock couldn’t have come at a worse time for recycled plastic. The industry was already struggling to make a profit after China banned imports of the commodity.

And due to coronavirus shutdowns, commercial recycling – which is more efficient than residential collections – has dried up. That’s made supply tight and increased costs for recyclers, making the price differential with virgin plastic even worse.

Globally, humans have never been that good at recycling – only about 9 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been made into something new. Still, recycled materials could be a critical resource as global supply chains face virus-related shocks of their own. And micro-plastics from uncollected waste are still sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor, changing marine habitats in ways we’ve just begun to study. People may still want to stop that.

In the US, that places coronavirus bailout policy front-and-centre if a waste-free country is still the goal.

“If governments are going to bailout manufacturers of virgin plastic, and they don’t provide any to recycling, then people won’t think recycled plastic can be competitive,” said Ron Gonen, chief executive of New York recycling infrastructure investment firm Closed Loop Partners.


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