Dividing trash to be recycled has become a way of life for Americans. More than 34 percent of garbage is recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a gain of over 400 percent since 1960.
Those numbers notwithstanding, that progress could be halted as lower oil prices drive down profits in the recycling industry, according to at least one observer.
"When you look at our recycling business over the last 3 years when we really saw the downturn, it sort of fluctuated from slightly profitable to slightly unprofitable," David Steiner, the CEO of Waste Management, the largest recycler in North America, told CNBC's "On the Money" in a recent interview. A big part of that swing can be linked to cheaper oil, the executive said.
Experts say that because plastic is derived from oil, cheap crude becomes an incentive to make fresh plastic. That means recycled plastic becomes less attractive because of the work it requires to sort and clean it. All told, lower energy prices are creating a perfect storm for waste management companies.
"The combination of natural gas and crude oil being low means that virgin materials are much less expensive than it has been historically," said Michael Taylor, vice president for international affairs and trade at SPI: The Plastics Trade Industry Association.
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