Prices plummeting – even for recyclables

Prices: n. amount charged to purchase or sell something.

Plummet: v. to drop sharply and abruptly

The stock market plummets. Real estate values plummet. Employment plummets. And now the price of recycled materials.

Visions of Wall-E: a planet buried in waste.

One of my small pleasures these days, since I can’t afford to acquire stuff, is getting rid of stuff. Much of that stuff is paper, which gets picked up once a week, hauled off someplace, then converted into something new and useful.  I’ve also become such a skillful recycler of plastics, cans, glass (and composter of plant materials) that I need only one garbage pickup a month.

However, according to today’s paper, the recycling pipeline has hit a major snag:

The economic downturn has decimated the market for recycled materials like cardboard, plastic, newspaper and metals. Across the country, this junk is accumulating by the ton in the yards and warehouses of recycling contractors, which are unable to find buyers or are unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices.

Ordinarily the material would be turned into products like car parts, book covers and boxes for electronics. But with the slump in the scrap market, a trickle is starting to head for landfills instead of a second life.

Mixed paper (my specialty!) which sold for $105 a ton on the West Coast in October now goes for about $25. Prices are much much lower in other parts of the country, which leaves the collection facilities with heaps that look like this:

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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 price rebound in the next six months to a year.

China, once a big buyer of our crap, is also in an economic slump so they don’t want it any more. For quite awhile recycling was profitable for cities and businesses – a little extra income on the side.  No more – all that recycling infrastructure is expensive to maintain if the profit disappears.

We’ve got two possible paths:

  • Dramatically reduce packaging, as well as production of stuff that will need to be disposed of
  • Come up with some brilliant new uses for, and processes to convert efficiently, all the crap we’ve accumulated and no longer wish to keep

If you’ve ever been to a third world country where they lack the infrastructure to process waste, you know what a dismal mess our world could become if we don’t figure this one out. Scary shit.

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One response to “Prices plummeting – even for recyclables

  1. A bit of both would be best.

    All the packaging drives me crazy anyway.