Tough times for recycling


There are no signs yet of a nationwide abandonment of recycling programs. But industry executives say that after years of growth, the whole system is facing an abrupt slowdown.

Many large recyclers now say they are accumulating tons of material, either because they have contracts with big cities to continue to take the scrap or because they are banking on a future price rebound.

“We’re warehousing it and warehousing it and warehousing it,” said Johnny Gold, senior vice president at the Newark Group, a company that has 13 recycling plants across the country. Gold said the industry had seen downturns before but not like this.

The precipitous drop in prices for recyclables makes the stock market’s performance seem almost enviable.

On the West Coast, for example, mixed paper is selling for $20 to $25 a ton, down from $105 in October, according to Official Board Markets, a newsletter that tracks paper prices. And recyclers say tin is worth about $5 a ton, down from $327 earlier this year. There is greater domestic demand for glass, so its price has not fallen as much.

The downturn offers some insight into the forces behind the recycling boom of recent years. Environmentally conscious consumers have been able to feel good about sorting their recycling and putting it on the curb. But most recycling programs have been driven as much by raw economics as by activism.

Well, yeah. Ever heard the expression “doing well by doing good”? A big part of the allure of recycling all along has been that it’s not only good for the environment, but also for the bottom line of cities, neighborhoods, and so forth. If the latter isn’t true, for however long, that’s going to significantly change the calculus. Those concerned about this issue, and the potential environmental impact of more stuff being shipped to landfills because there’s nothing else anyone wants to do with it right now, might want to think about pushing some kind of pro-recycling initiative as part of the overall economic stimulus plan that President-elect Obama is rolling out. Andrew Leonard has a more pessimistic take on it.

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