Does Capitalism Bring out the Worst in Recycling?

In the current financial, political, and social climate, the debate over the form of our economic system and its potential influence spans beyond economics. It has permeated nearly every sphere of human life including recycling, sustainability, and the state of the ecosystem.

While there is ongoing talk of a possible oncoming recession, the economy has still been slowly growing. It is possible that a recession would not have as much of an effect on the recycling industry because of inevitable waste and the need to dispose of that waste.

But is the inevitable production of waste a problem that needs to be solved? Is the recycling industry unequivocally tied to the production of waste? Is recycling a process that perpetuates only the worst pitfalls of a capitalist economy, or is there hope for reform in the transformation of the industry?

To answer these questions, we have to look at the start of the recycling trade and the international trends that have led it to where it is now.

Chasing Profitability in the International Recycling Trade

Recycling has been thriving since the early 19th century, but within the last few years, developed countries including the U.S., The U.K., Japan and Germany have been struggling to make it profitable in the wake of China’s National Sword Policy. Previously, about 7 million tons of plastic trash was shipped to China from the U.S. each year to be recycled into raw materials for new products.

Exporting waste material to be recycled in China was much more profitable than recycling it domestically due to lower wages and environmental regulations. However, it was also justified out of sheer convenience on both sides. The U.S. so frequently imported goods from China that it became efficient to return those shipping containers with raw materials in a trade that may have been mutually beneficial at the time. But there were a lot of social implications in this trade and environmental consequences that became too dire for China to ignore.

Recycling companies in developed nations were profiting off of selling low-grade material to China that they couldn’t or wouldn’t process domestically—material that simply would’ve otherwise been trashed due to lack of profit motive. Unfortunately, this is now a reality as recycling programs across the nation stop collection altogether or divert materials to landfills and incinerators.

As easy as it may feel to point the finger at China for causing this distress, we have to look at the exploitation involved. This trade is reminiscent of the exploitation of labor inherent in the capitalist profit motive.

China became the world’s trash dump because it was less developed and less regulated. Existing in a capitalist world economy, China sought to gain profit in selling cheap products to developed countries through their lower wages and regulations. In the context of their growing economy, these raw materials were the most efficient way to package and create their products to sell back to the US.

However, As China became more industrialized and profitable in this endeavor, they produced their own trash as well. Now that their economy is growing at a rate that is more comparable to the US, it is no longer possible to exploit their position for profit.

Although it began as export of raw materials, it became an export of pollution. Thus, recycling fell into the pitfall of chasing profit at the expense of exploitation. But we have to wonder if this was all part of the process of a growing economy—if new innovation and infrastructure that is now required for the industry to survive will drive profits higher while bettering the environment.

Does Capitalism Demand and Encourage Waste?

Now that we have discussed the toxicity of capitalist profit motive on the international recycling market, we can explore whether it compounds the problems of waste and environmental harm.

Recycling has often been pitched with a focus on the responsibility of the consumer for their own waste. We feel vindicated of our throwaway, fast-paced lifestyle when we are able to place a few items in our blue recycling bins with the faith that they will be whisked away and expertly remade into new products. We feel we aren’t really throwing anything away if it’s recycled, because it’s not wasted but instead transformed.

One can see capitalism as both encouraging and discouraging of waste. Capitalism, above all, seeks never-ending economic expansion through the driving force of profit. There are a number of ways that profit can be increased, including the examples above which rely on lower wages and regulations, but there is also both the decrease and increase of waste associated.

The recycling market continues to suffer as it is unable to offer products and services to buyers at a price that is motivational. For example, it is still often cheaper to create virgin plastics than it is to buy recycled ones. This causes an increase in waste motivated by capitalist profit. Companies use more natural resources to produce more plastics that will be sent to landfills, leaked into the waterways, and broken down into the air we breathe.

Companies are also motivated to make their products single-use or short in lifespan because this means that they can sell more of them and therefore increase their profit. Plastic was originally popular because it was remarkably strong and long-lasting. Now a profit has been made off of making single-use products out of plastic because it is cheap to produce.

On top of working with virgin plastics to increase profit, producers are drawn to using mixed plastics that are harder to recycle for aesthetic reasons (i.e. creating clear packaging or branding colors). This decreases the likelihood that they will buy recycled materials because they are harder to manipulate in this way.

Previously profits have been obtained through the reduction and elimination of waste. For example, the creation of the recycling industry was motivated by the potential for profit off of these raw materials. This push and pull between encouragement and discouragement of waste in pursuit of profit can be seen in various industries and markets.

Ultimately, the free market of capitalism puts power in the hands of the consumers and producers to decide how profit drives the market through supply and demand. And in the recycling industry, the debate rages on over whether the obligation for more sustainable production should fall more so on consumers or producers.

Is the Recycling Industry Part of the Problem?

As it stands, the recycling crisis in the U.S. continues as the price of materials is so low that it is economically easier to dump them in a landfill than to try to find markets for them.

This has led some to believe that recycling is only addressing one aspect of the greater problem: a capitalist society that values profit over sustainability. But does ever-increasing economic growth necessarily mean increasing production and resource depletion? Or could it instead of drive new solutions to accomplish growth more efficiently and sustainably?

It is arguable that the problem is not the value of profit-driving the market above all else, but instead the assumption that profit is inherently in conflict with sustainability. The recycling industry itself is proof that they can join together to correct the downfalls of capitalism.

The problem at this time is the volume and type of waste being produced in combination with the lack of proper infrastructure to process it. However, MRF’s are already combining forces with governments, nonprofits, and universities to solve these problems in ways that will increase both profit and sustainability in the industry.

Whether you support a capitalist economy or not, it can be argued that an expanding economy doesn’t necessarily need to rely on the increasing consumption of resources and increased production. Instead, it can be fueled by the creation of new processes and infrastructure that allows the production of fewer products with reused resources that are in shorter supply and higher demand. This would create the result of profit that is sustainable. But this evolving process of efficiency takes time as it is driven slowly by the needs of the market.

We will continue to stay on top of the latest trends in the recycling industry and provide the timeliest updates to our readers. Berg Mill has a long history as one of the pioneers in the industry. We are here to help you navigate through all the recyclable import changes. If you handle large amounts of recycled waste and are looking for solutions, please contact our industry veterans at Berg Mill supply via our website or phone at 866-333-BERG. Talk to us about purchasing all your scrap paper, plastic, metal, textiles, glass grades, e-waste, and any other materials.  Make sure to check out our new consulting department as well to help you navigate through any issues you might have.