The Filipino government recently launched an ambitious plan designed to encourage more recycling in the capital city of Manila. The new program pays residents to drop off both biodegradable waste and certain recyclable materials, like PET water bottles. In its early stages, the program seems to be working. But is it sustainable?
The idea of the government paying people for their recyclables has been floated in this country before. At first glance, it seems like a reasonable idea. People will make the effort to recycle more if there is a financial incentive to do so. Bottle redemption laws at the state level have proven that. But outright paying cash for consumer plastics and biodegradable waste is a far cry from putting a five-cent deposit on a bottle.
Bring Us Your Plastic
Manila residents have access to a brand-new materials recovery facility that accepts everything from bamboo to plastic food containers. Residents simply pay a visit to drop off their recyclables and walk away with cash in hand. Workers at the recycling facility sort the materials and then send them on their way.
Biodegradable materials are processed to create fertilizer and soil used by the Manila zoo. Recycled plastics are processed and transformed into new consumer products. Some of the materials, like plastic tarps, are simply repurposed to make things like bags and wallets.
Meanwhile, things like PET water bottles are shredded and sent to manufacturers who use the material to make a variety of plastic products. Much of what they are doing with plastic recyclables in Manila we are already familiar with here in the U.S.
The Question of Financial Viability
As things stand, Manila’s nascent residential recycling program seems to be working. But there is that nagging question of financial viability. How long will the government be able to continue paying for recyclable materials? Furthermore, is the government reaping its own financial reward large enough to overcome the costs?
Financial viability is always the wildcard when it comes to recycling. If you can do it at a profit, recycling becomes a worthwhile endeavor. But if your recycling efforts constantly result in financial loss, there is no point in continuing.
Residential Recycling in the U.S.
The financial viability issue is what has largely doomed residential recycling in the U.S. The fact is that it costs municipalities too much. At the same time, they cannot sell recycled materials at a high enough price to cover their costs. So every year they recycle represents another year of budgetary red ink.
On the other hand, industrial recycling seems to work very well. Our success as an industrial plastic recycler demonstrates that. Here at Seraphim Plastics, we buy scrap plastic from industrial companies and recycle it. We then sell that scrap plastic to manufacturers.
Commercial plastic recycling is set up in such a way that it can be quite profitable. We make money by employing a quite simple system that does not require a lot of labor-intense activity. For example, we only collect industrial plastic waste that has already been sorted and decontaminated. Because we do not have to handle that part of the equation, we can keep our costs in line.
It is not clear how much manual labor is involved in the Manila program. In all likelihood though, their recycling is labor-intensive – at least where sorting non-biodegradable recyclables is concerned. But as long as there are enough manufacturers willing to buy the recycled material, the city can probably make a go of it. It will be interesting to see where the program is five and 10 years from now.