Close up of green and yellow waste and recycling bins.Waste Management’s latest sustainability report delves into factors impacting the plastics recycling industry as a whole, including fluctuating markets, sustainable materials management, technological advances and more.

In 2017, Waste Management collected and managed 443,040 tons of scrap plastics. That means plastics accounted for 2.8 percent of all the recyclables handled by the company, according to the recently released report. The plastics figure is up from 408,000 tons handled in 2015, when plastic was about 2.9 percent of all recyclables the company managed.

A publicly traded company, Houston-based Waste Management is the largest garbage and recycling company in North America. It collects, sorts and sells scrap plastics and other recyclables.

Although the company’s scrap plastics tonnage hasn’t changed drastically, where that material is moving has shifted in recent years. After China’s Green Fence campaign in 2013, “Waste Management began to diversify our markets, sending more plastics to domestic markets” and paper to alternative export destinations.

Despite getting an early start on diversifying its downstream destinations, the company saw some major shifts between 2017 and 2018. The report doesn’t break down where certain commodities were sent, but it gives an overall picture of material movement.

China imported 27 percent of Waste Management’s entire volume of recyclables in 2017, and that number dropped to 5 percent in 2018 as new Chinese import restrictions took effect. The decrease was accompanied with growth in other markets: U.S. companies bought 68 percent of the hauler’s recyclables in 2018, up from 63 percent a year earlier. India increased its share of Waste Management’s recyclables from nearly 5 percent to more than 15 percent. Growth was also seen in Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Those shifts are likely to continue China has officially banned post-industrial plastic as of the beginning of 2019. Post-consumer plastic has been banned from import in China since early 2018. Scrap plastic was not included in the country’s first couple rounds of 2019 import permit approvals.

Alongside the market fluctuations, Waste Management has begun embracing a sustainable materials management (SMM) approach ni recent years. This school of thought holds that it’s best to think about managing materials for the highest environmental benefit over the entirety of their life cycle. The SMM dialogue has sparked concerns that plastics recovery progress could get dampened by stakeholders’ transition to more holistic approaches to materials management.

With SMM in mind, Waste Management considers the greenhouse gas emissions reduction potential of recycling various materials. Plastics recycling comes in on the low end of the spectrum, reducing slightly more greenhouse gas emissions than glass recycling but significantly less than aluminum can or cardboard recycling.

“With constrained resources and weakened market demand, evaluating recycling through the lens of life cycle thinking helps our customers grapple with a changing commodities market for recycling, helping to prioritize their efforts,” the company wrote.

Photo credit: Phototribe/Shutterstock

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