The Rise of Recyclables: A Small History of a Big Commodity

The proper management of waste is a perennial topic of conversation in many fields: public service, business management, and of course, environmental policy. Ultimately, economics dictates that some level of value is lost to waste processes, no matter the circumstance. That said, there exists a surprising avenue for recapturing some of this lost value: reselling recyclable materials to vendors that can use them as raw materials.

A New Frontier

The market for recycled materials expanded worldwide, as others did, with the rise of globalization from the 90s through the turn of the millennium. The markets for recycled materials certainly experienced some growing pains. Harvard Business Review describes the early recyclables markets as subject to boom-and-bust cycling and also recounts popular myths of recycling collection effectively turning into new landfills. Yet even in the early days, the market was profitable for shrewd investors; and the success of those enterprises laid the groundwork for recyclables markets today.

A Diverse Challenge

Those early investors who were successful in the market understood a few key points about the recyclables market. First, not every bit of waste is equally valuable. Postconsumer paper, for instance, can come from many sources, and the selection of source matters greatly to the price and quality of the reclaimed product. Second, every recyclable has its own quirks. The market for recycled plastic, which has seen cycles of voracious demand, is closely tied to the price of oil, as petrochemicals are a major component in the manufacture of virgin plastics. When oil is expensive, the demand for recycled plastic feedstock increases, driving up the price, and when oil prices fall the reverse is true. Mastering the cycles and other unusual characteristics of this commodity presented a challenge only some enterprises could rise to.

A Green Machine

Today, the recyclable materials market is strong, even if its overall character is quite unique among global commodities markets. Manufacturers across the United States utilize technology such as the industrial baler to ease the collection and transport of recycled material from factory sites to the processors that utilize it. The benefits are many, from new employment opportunities to better bottom lines for businesses in myriad sectors—and that’s before considering the environmental upside that these innovations provide.
Overall, the expansion of the recyclables market has been a boon for the economy. From its early days in civic collections, recyclables vendors have grown to provide an important service, reclaiming value and improving the bottom line of businesses while also helping the environment.