How to Make Money in Plastics Recycling

The device on which you are reading this blog (or on which you printed it) likely contains plastic, in addition to some precious and non-precious metals. When that device reaches the end of its life, you have two types of options, I learned from the Circular Economy Executive Education Course I'm taking: 

  1. Linear product and material options include “burying” the device in a drawer or tossing it into a landfill bin. The embedded materials and energy are lost.
  2. Circular options include upgrading the device for continued use, passing it to others to use, salvaging it for usable parts, and finally recycling it. The economy grows from the use of finite resources.

It's the circular option for plastics that prompted the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) to ask Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan of Eco-Catalyst; Andy Fergurson, chair of the environmental committee of the International Association of Plastics Distributors, and me to co-lead a workshop entitled How to Make Money in Plastics Recycling at ISRI's Plastics Summit convention (to be held on April 6th, 2016, in Las Vegas).

“Over the past several years many metal recyclers have successfully made the jump into plastics,” said ISRI's director of member Services Jonathan Levy. “Their efforts have paid off in that they are now more diversified, handling more materials, and in a better position to weather the ups and downs of individual market sectors.”

Why Plastics, why money, & why now

Because more and more products are made of plastic and not yet designed as Circular Economy solutions, the supply of mixed, post-consumer plastics is burgeoning. Plastics recycling, however, is a newer business than metals recycling, the latter having business models that are well understood. Many metals recyclers have been reluctant to make the jump to plastics.

At first glance, recycling plastics is like recycling any other commodity—it takes a keen understanding of the markets, material, equipment, and input-output data to succeed, grow, and thrive. However, my co-speaker Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, CEO of Eco-Catalyst, pointed out “a successful plastics recycling business needs to carefully balance material-dependent processing costs with what the market will bear.”

And because many metals recyclers are not yet convinced that they can recycle plastics profitably — especially with the currently low cost of crude oil for new plastics — the workshop is timely.

Data is everything

When discussing how best to treat post-first-use products both economically and responsibly, an electronics-producer client of ours exclaimed, “Data is everything.” It's the same for recyclers.

 Andy Fergurson, head of recycling at a USA plastics recycler, realized that he needed objective, reliable data on profitability and sustainability to convince his corporate executives to invest the necessary resources to build a truly sustainable plastics recycling program. During workshop, Fergurson will walk the audience through a pilot study he conducted using Eco-Catalyst's Smart EOL.  

“Tracking the variable costs associated with recycling divergent grades of plastics from many different sources — as well as factoring in turbulent market prices — allows us to make sure each transaction fits well into our business model and profitability targets,” Fergurson said. “We can identify at a glance which transactions to pursue based not only on recyclability but also on profitability.”

Srinivasan created Smart EOL “to give the recyclers and manufacturers of a variety of products the ability to design end-of-life programs for their products and materials that are economically viable and environmentally sound.”

Inter-industry solutions for plastics “waste”

When the plastics in the device you are using are responsibly and efficiently recycled, they may not appear again in another electronic device, but instead in a completely different industry's product. To provide an example, I will kick off the ISRI workshop on April 6th by engaging the audience in a case study, from the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, in which an increasing supply of used healthcare plastic packaging is heading to consumer electronics products. The Circular Economy requires creative thinking leading to economic and responsible “circling” of materials both intra- and inter-industries. 

We hope to see you at the workshop! In the meantime, let us know your thoughts on plastics and the electronics supply chain in the comments section below. 

3 comments on “How to Make Money in Plastics Recycling

  1. Giselle Bunechen
    March 15, 2016

    I never knew this way to make money. Infact, I never give a thought about it. But, making money from plastic recycling is really cool. Coming to your writing, you have described the main theme very clearly.

  2. DavidWright
    April 16, 2016


  3. Willcarmen
    April 17, 2016

    Even this was new to me. Never knew one can make so much money out of plastics.

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