Throughout most of the 21st century thus far, recyclers have enjoyed taking part in a commodities boom that has increased the value of the scrap materials they collect and process and also has provided consistent demand.
Those same recyclers don’t need a magazine editor to tell them that the boom years have seemed to come to an end, as prices for most materials have fallen in response to slackening demand. As has historically been the case, those lower prices are now drying up supply in those sectors where supply responds to pricing.
While secondary commodity markets boomed, traders and scrap processors caught up in the day-to-day frenzy to supply hungry markets often might have had little time to pay attention to the corporate sustainability movement.
After attending five recycling conferences in a 20-day stretch in the autumn of 2015, however, a recurring theme at these events was that sustainability, “green” branding and circular economy efforts have made an impact on the demand for scrap materials.
Veteran recyclers (and recycling journalists) can be forgiven for questioning the staying power of such movements and catch phrases.
Corporations by their structure (and the vast majority of the world’s economies by their structure) are set up to make the market the primary driver of supply, demand, pricing and the medium- and long-term success of a given business practice.
A multibillion-dollar question thus surrounds the ability of consumer product manufacturers—ranging from automakers to soft drink bottlers—to retain sustainability as a long-term goal.
In the meantime, many recyclers who took the podium at various conferences in the fall of 2015 say many such commitments seem to be staying in place, and recyclers can be the beneficiaries.
At the Plastics Recycling Conference Europe, presenter Serafin Garcia of Spain-based plastics recycler Sulayr Global Service said it has been the commitment of many of his customers to sustainability that “is keeping us alive” in the face of competition from low-priced virgin materials. “Retailers are supportive,” he commented. “Customers want green products.”
Although recyclers of metals and paper take part in a market where the economics of using scrap have long been the predominant factor, the largest players in these sectors and their trade organizations have found that makers of building products, vehicles, appliances and food packaging now all commonly tout their recycled content.
Considering the current state of scrap prices in many sectors, the insistence on recycled content from makers of products ranging from computers to cereal boxes may be a helpful lifeline the next couple of years.