Plastic Bag Market Challenges
Chinese Import Ban
On January 1, 2018, China officially banned the import of 24 types of recyclable commodities, including bales of plastic bags. Suddenly, the Chinese market, which had previously imported half of the world’s recycled paper and half of North America’s recycled plastic bags, was closed. Several countries have followed China’s lead with Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand ratifying similar import bans on recyclables. Preliminary analysis by More Recycling has estimated that hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic bags collected for recycling in North America in 2018 were landfilled or incinerated due to lack of end-markets. The North American recycling industry cannot wait for the uncertain return of Asian recycling markets; now is the time to fill the void and invest in domestic recycling infrastructure.
Decline in Prime Resin Pricing
Although the general public has become more aware of the problem of plastic pollution over the last year, this awakening has not yet slowed the global growth of plastic production. For example, ExxonMobil has recently announced that it plans to pump 25% more oil in 2025 than it did in 2017. With more oil available, more plastic will be produced, and virgin plastic pricing will continue to drop. In a market flooded with virgin plastic, it will be very difficult for recycled plastic to compete.
Developing a Circular Economy in North America
To transition from a linear economy to a circular economy, the demand for recycled content must match the production of recyclable materials recovered from the residential and commercial sectors. A circular economy prioritizes the reuse of what is already available over the extraction and disposal of natural resources. Unfortunately, the traditional linear economic model still prevails. The oil and prime resin industries in North America are highly subsidized, totaling over $40 billion per year in fossil fuel extraction subsidies.
For example, a new plastic production facility being built in Alberta has received $200 million in government funding to produce polypropylene (a material which could be made from post-consumer recyclables) from natural gas. Comparable incentives for the recycling industry do not exist.
Since residential recycling programs began in North America, there has been a narrow policy focus on increasing diversion rates. Engaging residents to participate in curbside recycling programs was a necessary effort to provide a supply for the recycling industry, but an equivalent focus on “demand” has not yet been seen. International brands are increasingly making commitments to improve the recyclability of their packaging, but those promises are not always accompanied by a corresponding commitment to include recycled content in their packages. While this market demand may eventually develop organically through consumer demand, legislation or public commitments to use recycled content can push the circular economy towards a lasting reality.