HomeThe CSWD BlogRecyclingBlack plastic: no longer recyclable in Chittenden County

Black plastic: no longer recyclable in Chittenden County

A black plastic food service container
Black plastic doesn’t belong in your recycling bin.

Black plastic is pretty easy to identify. It’s plastic, and it’s black. And in Chittenden County, it doesn’t belong in your recycling bin. We recommend reusing black plastic containers to store leftovers, or in a craft project. But if you can’t invent another use for them, black plastic goes in the trash.

If you’re wondering why, keep reading.

The short answer

The global commodities market – where we sell the recyclables we collect – isn’t buying black plastic. In recent years our recycling center (called the Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF) has had trouble selling bales containing black plastic at a high enough price to cover our processing costs. At times we couldn’t even give them away. And because black plastic makes up a tiny fraction (0.06%) of the recycling stream, we decided to focus on maximizing the value of the other 99.94% of recyclables that come through our door.

For these reasons, we no longer accept black plastic for recycling. Please reuse black plastic containers, or place them in the trash.

A longer answer

All plastics are not created equal. Some plastics are easy to recycle – and are more valuable. Black plastic is neither. In fact, including black plastic in the recycling stream actually makes it more difficult and expensive to recycle other kinds of plastic, too.

The fact is, black plastic can’t be made into as many things. Black plastic is theoretically recyclable – that is, in a perfect world you could open your own processing plant, collect a bunch of black plastic food trays, melt them all down and turn them into…more black plastic food trays.

But there’s the rub (at least, part of it). There’s a limit to what can be manufactured out of black plastic, which makes it a lot less valuable.

It’s also difficult to sort. Another problem: companies that buy our recyclables haven’t figured out a dependable way to sort it. Most of them use infrared, optical sorting devices to separate different types of plastics that arrive in the same bale. Because black plastic absorbs the infrared light instead of bouncing it back to the sensor, it’s really hard and more expensive for them to deal with. They don’t want it.

Black and white photo of a conveyor and bales at the MRF.
At the MRF: Recycling isn’t a black-and-white issue.

The economics of recycling

For the most part, recycling is like any other industry – when a lot of people want to buy the product you have, the price for it goes up. As long as the price covers your costs, you can stay in business. If not, you’ve got to find a way to change and adapt.

But lately, viable markets for black plastic have dried up. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at how to change the way we process black plastics to keep up with the declining markets, keeping in mind CSWD’s mission to reduce waste sent to the landfill.

After feedback from the plastic buyers, we found that, by taking black plastic out of the mix, we had access to consistent, viable markets for the remainder of our plastics. We’re now able to move recyclable material to markets that are able and willing to recycle it.

More than just economics

Ultimately, recycling isn’t just an economic decision. It’s also about taking responsibility for our environment, conserving our resources, and keeping more of our stuff out of the landfill.

So we took a hard look at the impact black plastic has on the landfill. And we discovered that black plastic actually makes up a tiny fraction of the recycling stream: 0.06% of it, actually.

So while it never feels good for us to make a decision that means sending material to the landfill, we have to weigh the benefits and costs. So we’re focusing on more effectively recycling the other 99.94% of recyclable material that comes through our doors, and make sure that we get the most value for it – so that we can keep more material out of the landfill.

Does this mean that recycling is broken?

Actually, just the opposite. You may have read some national news stories lately about recycling centers (i.e. MRFs) shutting down because they just weren’t profitable. As a municipality, CSWD doesn’t run its recycling center for profit. Instead, our goal is to keep as much out of the landfill as possible. We can do that only by carefully watching the recycling markets, and making decisions that ensure the long-term sustainability of our recycling facility.

It’s frustrating for us to have to take something out of the recycling stream and put it back into the trash stream. We don’t make this decision lightly. But we are subject to changes in the global marketplace when it comes to turning recyclables into new products. And unfortunately, we don’t see the situation changing in the foreseeable future.

Please keep this in mind as you make your purchasing decisions. Shop with your household waste footprint in mind and choose items that have been minimally packaged – or thoughtfully packaged for easy recycling – to keep your landfill legacy to a minimum. Manufacturers pay attention when you vote with your wallet!

Like this? Share it:
Marketing & Communications Manager at CSWD
Jonny joined CSWD in 2014 after several years abroad where he ran websites, film projects, classrooms, and half marathons. Originally from Virginia, he was drawn to Vermont's strong sense of community, apple cider, and the search for Champ.