Recycling, COVID, and the Amazon Effect

The U.S. recycling market has been up and down over the last several years. Whether it is PVC recycling or recovering scrap cardboard from a curbside bin, recycling is constantly being influenced by a variety of market conditions. COVID and the proliferation of online shopping have both contributed to recycling’s ups and downs.

The good news is that markets are both rebounding and adjusting. Americans are recycling a lot more, by volume, these days. So are businesses. We can look to both COVID and something known as the ‘Amazon effect‘ for a partial explanation.

COVID Industrial Recycling

The place to start is with the COVID pandemic itself. It has had a definite impact on the recycling arena. For starters, production shutdowns lead to lower demand for both recycling services and recycled materials. Remember that the country was largely idle for the first three months of the pandemic. When business did start coming back, progress was slow.

Demand for industrial plastic recycling flattened out big time during the pandemic. Companies just weren’t producing the same amount of waste for the simple fact they were not producing much. Needless to say, it was a tough year. We hung in there and can now confidently say that things are almost back to pre-COVID normal.

COVID Household Recycling

While the pandemic shut down industry and limited business somewhat, it also resurrected the household recycling market to some degree. This is where the Amazon effect comes into play. Faced with very few options for keeping themselves occupied, American consumers began to spend. A great deal of that spending occurred online. What was the result? A lot more recyclables coming into the home.

Virtually everything that comes from Amazon ships in a cardboard box. We Americans have purchased so much cardboard that recyclers have measured an up-tick of about 50% over the last year. That means they are collecting and recycling one-and-a-half times more cardboard.

The great thing about cardboard is that it enjoys a steady market. Cardboard is sold to processors who break it down and turn it into things like insulation, recycled paper products, and more. As for recycling glass, the bottom never really fell out on it.

Sorting Is the Key

If we can learn anything from the Amazon effect and COVID’s impact on recycling, it is this: sorting is the key to making recycling work. Eliminate the need to sort and you also eliminate one of the biggest impediments to large scale residential recycling.

For purposes of illustration, we are able to make a profit recycling scrap plastic because the materials that come to us don’t require any sorting. Seraphim Plastics does not employ a team of laborers who have to stand at an assembly line and sort the good stuff from the bad. Recyclable materials go directly from our trucks to grinding lines.

Recycling household waste is a lot more difficult because so many materials are mixed in. Moreover, it only takes one curbside bin of contaminated plastics to contaminate an entire load. It is just not worth the time, money, and effort to sort it all out.

Painful, But Ultimately Good

China’s decision to stop being the world’s recyclable dumping ground was a painful decision as far as the West was concerned. But ultimately, it has proved good. Their actions have forced us to rethink how we approach recycling. And because we have done so, the COVID pandemic has not been entirely detrimental.

To the contrary, COVID ushered in the Amazon effect. With it came the realization that we can effectively recycle if we approach it the right way.