Energy & Environment

Recycling Recession

Recycling programs may be local in nature, but they're tied intrinsically to the global economy. That's never been clearer than in the past several months....
by , | May 31, 2009

Recycling programs may be local in nature, but they're tied intrinsically to the global economy. That's never been clearer than in the past several months. Last fall, the prices of recyclable commodities suffered their worst crash in history, falling from record-high prices to record lows. Markets for metals, paper and plastics simply froze, leaving municipalities and their haulers to stockpile mountains of the stuff. The situation with paper was especially instructive. The United States had been exporting 20 percent of its recycled paper to China, where it was made into boxes for packaging shoes, electronics and other goods to be shipped right back. When consumer demand fell off a cliff in October, it dragged the economics of paper recycling right down with it.

Things are a little better now. Commodity prices have bounced back, if only a little. And markets for recyclables are moving again. But municipalities are in for a year or more of tough choices about the most visible initiative they undertake in the name of protecting the environment. When prices were at their peak, a large number of cities and counties made money on recycling. Now, at a time when budgets already are tight, many will have to pay someone to take all those bottles, cans and newspapers off their hands. "Smart people working in this field recognized that there would be a market correction at some point," says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. "But no one thought it would be so quick and deep."

Richard Hills, director of waste management in Middlesex County, New Jersey, says he's seen ups and downs in recycling markets before, but "this is probably one of the most dramatic swings." Hills expects his county's recycling costs to go up later this year when the contract with its waste hauler expires. While some counties in New Jersey are thinking about scaling back their recycling programs, Hills has no plans to do so--it can cost even more to send recyclables to a landfill, he says.

Unless commodity prices rise quickly, some localities may be forced to increase the fees that homeowners pay for recycling. Others may look at reducing hours at recycling centers or decreasing the frequency of curbside pickups.

Despite the worsening economics, many localities intend to grow their recycling programs. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, is carrying on with a public relations blitz aimed at increasing participation in curbside recycling. Matt Diehl, spokesman for the county's Department of Public Works, admits that recycling no longer generates the revenues it once did, but the county nevertheless wants to see the proportion of waste that gets recycled reach 50 percent.

What no one seems to be talking about is giving up on recycling entirely. In some cases, state law requires localities to recycle a certain percentage of their trash, so they have no choice. But recycling's resilience also is a sign of the growing green consciousness in many cities and counties across the country. It's taken decades to get people used to the idea of placing glass, plastic and paper in separate containers, and they don't want to go back. "Once you turn a program off," Skinner says, "it's really hard to turn back on."


More from Energy & Environment