Recycling industry takes hit during COVID-19: Why your plastic may be headed to the landfill


Editors Note: This story has been updated with a statement from Texas Disposal Systems

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For the first time in modern history, humans have quite literally taken their foot off the gas pedal. This has been a win for environmentalists, as they’ve seen emission and pollution levels decrease.

For the recycling industry, COVID-19 hasn’t so much been a win.

“Recycling is a for-profit enterprise. It’s not going to recycle what it can recycle. It’s going to recycle what it can for a profit,” said CEO of TerraCycle Tom Szaky.

Terracycle is a global waste-management company. They focus on recycling things typically not recycled. Szaky says during the pandemic, overall recycling is down mainly due to old demand dropping, which sends prices down. In short, brand new plastic is now cheaper, driving demand for the recycled stuff down.

“If you think of the world of plastics, plastics are made from oil. Oil prices really set the value of plastics, and COVID has taken oil prices down,” said Szaky. “Many recyclers have shut down for health and safety concerns, that’s something people understand.”

Austin’s Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center closed in March. The center is expected to open back up Sept. 8, but one of the free options for Austin and Travis County has been closed for six months. The primary use of the facility is for the recycling of “hard-to-recycle” items such as Styrofoam, plastic film and proper disposal of household hazardous materials like batteries and chemicals.

“Unfortunately, we have to charge. We are not tax funded,” said Pat Mallet with Hometown Recycling.

At Hometown Recycling, Mallet says residents have reached out to them for their service but added many couldn’t afford the recycling fee.

“I wish recycling was a private service, It ought to be. But nowhere is it. It’s a for-profit enterprise,” said Szaky.

Because of that, Szaky says much of what you’re recycling could just being going straight to the landfill right now.

KXAN’s Kaitlyn Karmout reached out to the City of Austin. Officials could not speak about the costs for processors but did encourage reaching out to Texas Disposal Systems. TDS initially didn’t want to comment on the topic, but did send this statement on September 11.

“Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) processes approximately 45% of the City’s residential recyclables under a contract that prohibits the disposal, in a landfill or otherwise, of all recovered recyclables.  Additionally, since TDS and affiliated companies began recycling over 40 years ago, it has been our strict policy not to dispose of any recoverable recyclable materials that are collected as such.  The City of Austin and its residents can rest assured that no recyclable materials recovered from the City’s single stream recyclable stream, including plastics, will be landfilled regardless of the temporary fluctuations of international commodity markets.” 

Adam Gregory, Business Development for Texas Disposal Systems

Waste Management responded to us also, Leaders there believe the current market for recyclables is temporary.

“The recycling industry is resilient and adaptable. We believe the current market conditions for recyclables are temporary. Despite the ups and downs of commodities markets and the complexities of international trade, recycling is about commerce and long-term environmental stewardship. We expect recycling to thrive for generations to come.”

Public Affairs Director Lisa Doughty, Waste Management

But Szaky isn’t so sure.

“You should expect less capable recycling after COVID than before COVID,” said Szaky.

In the last few years, the plastic recycling industry was hit hard, with China no longer taking in imports to recycle for a cheaper price.

Before COVID-19, there was already an issue with recycled product piling up. In 2017, the EPA found just 8% of plastics were recycled.

Last week, the U.S. Plastics Pact was announced. It’s bringing industry leaders and governments together, with the goal of no longer using those problematic plastics. The goal by 2025 is to only use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastics. By that same year, they aim to recycle or compost half of that.

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