That post prompted some more investigation from reader and local city councilor John Anton, who also happens to be on the board of ecomaine, the uncapitalized regional waste management company here in southern Maine. He sent my post to Kevin Roche, ecomaine's general manager, to ask about where our own plastics end up. Here was Roche's response, in its entirety (emphasis and links are my own):
Hi John -
I've been selling plastic scrap since 1989 and have visited many plastic processing facilities during my time in the industry. Back in the late 80's and early 90's, it was tough to find markets for plastic and often times you wouldn't get any revenue for it. But it was still better than sending it to a landfill so we continued to market it to a variety of processors who chip it, wash it, and palletize for the use in new products and packaging. I witnessed this being done first hand so I'm confident that when you put this much effort into processing scrap, that it goes to good use.
Today, the markets have matured substantially...
The non-colored (natural) HDPE milk jugs (marked with a number 2 on the bottom) are now commanding over $800 per ton ($18,000 per trailer load). We sell a lot of this material to a Company in York PA called Graham Packaging which makes new plastic containers for detergents and cleaners (non-food).
The Colored HDPE #2 containers are sold to various markets (including Graham Packaging) at $600 per ton. Again, they make new bottles out of scrap bottles.
The PET #1 containers are sorted automatically by our scanner and sold at $400 per ton to various markets that make carpet or stuffing for sleeping bags and jackets, etc.
The 3-7 plastic we mix and sell together because we don't get enough of any one of them to substantiate accumulating them in separate loads. These markets are in their infancy (just like the #1 & #2 markets were 18 years ago). However they're the smallest percentage of what we process... See below.
Make up of the Plastics we process:
Colored HDPE #2: 28%
Natural HDPE #2: 25%
PET #1: 25%
Plastics #3-#7: 22%
We just started selling 3-7 plastic last year and we've averaged $45 per ton. Not nearly what the other plastics bring in but at least we're getting paid for it. Because there are limited markets for this material right now, we sell it to various brokers. Because they pay us for it, they can't simply afford to landfill it. It's sold to lower end markets but our hope is the markets will improve for this material over time as it has for the other plastics.
I hope this helps. Kevin.
So in Maine, at least, plastic recycling is pretty beneficial. Still, recycling does consume a lot of energy and resources, and note that even here, plastics are "downcycled" - that is, transformed from food-grade to non-food containers, or from water bottles to jacket insulation. And recycling plastics other than HDPE #2 and PET #1 is obviously more problematic, for now. Note that Roche does not know where those plastics end up - it's entirely possible that purchasers may be scouring that 22% portion of our plastic recycling to cherry-pick what they can and landfill the rest.
It's also important to note that ecomaine is a nonprofit owned by its 21 member communities, which helps to make its management considerably more open, progressive, and innovative than most waste management companies. I mean, would Tony Soprano have bothered to write the response above? Unfortunately, most American communities shouldn't expect this level of service from their own local recycling haulers. But as Roche has proven here, it's worth asking them about it.
So using less plastic is still far better than recycling plastic, but here in southern Maine, anyhow, recycling is better than burying or incinerating it with the rest of our garbage. Just make sure your plastic doesn't blow away into the nearest river or coastline when you set it out on the curb every week.