New plastic to make water or soda bottles—called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET—typically costs about 10% more than the recycled kind. But since the start of the year, prices for virgin PET—also known as No. 1 plastic—have fallen to 67 cents a pound from 83 cents, according to Plastics News, a sister publication of Crain's. Meanwhile, recycled PET has held steady at 72 cents.
Much of the decline stems from the plunge in oil prices. Consumers understandably rejoiced last year when the price of gasoline fell by half, but oil's drop all but obliterated the economics of pulling out the plastic from the 23,500 tons of trash produced by New Yorkers every day.
But plastic recycling is also a victim of its success. Most recycling programs around the country started modestly, targeting plastics used to contain soda or milk. But in recent years, recycling has grown more ambitious and now includes lower-quality plastics, such as those used for shower curtains, shopping bags and takeout containers. Expansion was good environmental policy, but when high- and low-quality plastics are collected together, they have to be separated by hand, which significantly raises the cost of recycling.
New York City's program of picking up recyclables on curbsides doesn't appear to be in jeopardy. The city has a long-term contract with Sims Municipal Recycling that obligates the vendor to process residents' plastic, glass, cardboard and other items at a Brooklyn waterfront factory that opened 18 months ago. Sims wouldn't comment but told Crain's last year that it was struggling to find markets for rigid plastics, a new addition to the city's recycling program. Some had to be shipped to landfills.