Is America’s recycling bubble about to burst?

Recycling Bins | Advanta Sustainable Packaging

Recycling is big business. Last year, recycling earned America a hefty $110 billion in economic activity and is responsible for maintaining 534,000 jobs. However, the sector could be at risk of collapse. Here, Miguel Campos, export sales manager at food packaging manufacturer Advanta, explains why America’s recycling bubble could be set to burst.

When disposing of materials, cities have two choices: landfill or recycle. Aside from the obvious environmental advantages of recycling, this option gives cities the opportunity to make money. The value of recycling is determined by the amount a city can be paid for its recyclable material, but there’s also the benefit of avoiding costly landfill fees. That being said, not all recycling is created equal.

For a recyclable commodity to hold any value, there must be a market willing to pay for the material. Aluminum is a good example of this. The metal is endlessly recyclable, and it is widely considered as one of the most profitable materials. What’s more, because it takes less energy to recycle aluminum than it does to extract it from bauxite ore, there’s always a market for the recycled product.

Where it gets more complex, is the realm of plastics. Despite the well-recognised recyclable symbol on plastic products, there are numerous plastic-based products that cannot be recycled at all. In fact, there are seven codes which determine plastic’s differing classifications.

Many consumers are not aware of these differences, creating a longer sorting procedure at recycling plants and adding to the cost of processing. The bigger challenge for plastics, however, is related to changes on the other side of the world.

For over 25 years, America been sending some of its plastic waste to China and South East Asia, rather than recycling it on home turf. In January 2018, China banned plastic from being imported in an effort to alleviate the country’s growing waste crisis. Since then, other developing nations have followed suit.

With China refusing to buy plastic waste, the value of the material has dropped significantly. America is already feeling the impact, with the closures of recycling facilities across the country. In fact, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Berkeley, California, published a report estimating the plastic recycling rate could drop to as low as 2.9 percent in 2019, compared with 9.1 per cent in 2015.

Sacramento in California provides a real-life example. The area recently cut back on which plastics it will picked up curbside, and now sends items like egg cartons, medicine bottles and some yoghurt containers to landfills instead. San Diego’s recycling program has also been turned on its head. Despite providing $4 million in revenue last year, recycling could now cost the city $1.1 million.

Admittedly, the packaging industry is looking to develop materials that could improve plastic recycling. In March 2019, a new black polyethylene terephthalate (PET) food tray was announced. Unlike much of the current plastic packaging on the market, this version of PET can be picked up by recycling equipment as it can detect the material’s black pigment in the sorting process.

But, if plastic recycling facilities are closing, then this new type of PET could still end up in landfill. Should America’s recycling industry wish to stay afloat in this environment, it will rely on consumer’s transitioning to higher value recyclable products, like aluminum.

So, who is responsible? Cities, recycling plants and consumers all have roles to play in improving the Earth’s sustainability, but it’s important to identify where these issues begin. Often, this is down to the material choices made by product manufacturers, and thankfully, we can help with the transition to alumunium. 

For more information on transitioning from plastic packaging to aluminum, a recyclable alternative, contact Advanta on +1 706 756 2335 or visit