Tag Archives: recycling

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:

08recyclelarge2

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.

Paula Poundstone: “Pitch it to us, Obama!”

Paula Poundstone: n. an American standup comedian known for her self-deprecating wit and political commentary. One of my favorite guests on the NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.”

Pitch: v. to throw, usually with a particular objective or toward a particular point

This morning Paula Poundstone did a sweet little guest mini-essay on NPR’s Morning Edition, telling Obama not to drop the ball, not to let us –  his newly charged up minions – off the hook when the country has so much that needs doing.

I was listening to this as I was walking my dog – leash and plastic bag for poop in one hand, and in the other hand a bigger plastic bag for the recyclable litter that collects on my route every day.  (On one residential block I always find a couple of empty pint Canadian whiskey bottles – and wonder, is this person driving on my road every day?).  Since I’ve seen first hand the horrors of our plastic addiction, I’m rabid about this daily task.

Here’s what Paula said:

My parents are a part of the “Greatest Generation.” They pulled our nation through the Depression and World War II, and when they heard the call, they collected rubber….

It’s our turn now. Just ask us. We’ve adopted freeways and been up all night with night feedings. We’ll bring an unwrapped gift. We’ll bring canned goods. We’ll collect flip-tops. Yes, we will.

What do you need us to do, President-elect Obama? We could form a bucket brigade to bail out the banks. We could collect Band-Aids, not the useless little ones, for the health care system. We could take shifts forming human pyramids to hold up our crumbling bridges….

We can carry road-mending materials in our cars and fill pot holes during traffic jams. We can put a wishing well on Wall Street.

Our leadership has told us that we have a long, hard climb before us, which I would welcome, because I love the outdoors, and I could use the weight loss, but I have a bad feeling it has nothing to do with climbing.

I’m waiting. I’m punching my glove. It’s oiled and ready. Pitch it in here, sir.

Certainly it wouldn’t be a big sacrifice to ask all of us who walk to bring along a bag for recyclables.  We could each plant a tree. We could drop our furnace settings by 1 degree. We could go meat and dairy-free one day a week.  So much to do.

On Obama’s transition website, change.gov, he’s got a page where you can share your vision for his administration. This is the place to pitch your ideas on how he can keep us engaged in this work together.

Paperholics Anonymous

Hi, My name is Joy and I am a Paperholic.

I’m grateful to be here with you today at Paperholics Anonymous. I don’t know where else I can turn.

My addiction began innocently enough. I was in college, writing an essay on feminist thought in early Ibsen. I had notes on index cards, notes on scrap paper, notes on the backs of envelopes and in the margins of books.

It was 6 a.m. and I’d been working on this !@#$% since noon the previous day. It was due in two hours and I COULD NOT FIND the scrap on which the perfect ending quote was scrawled.

I pawed pathetically through the papers till my desk looked like the bottom of a hamster’s cage. Minutes before my deadline the note surfaced and I typed my brilliant conclusion.

But ever since that day I’ve had a Paper Problem.

I LOVE paper. Books, magazines and newspapers, of course. But even better I like articles clipped from magazines and ripped from newspapers. I read the newspaper like I’m on an easter egg hunt. I scan to rule out all the drivel I don’t want to read, but when I find an interesting article, I tear it out and set it aside to read later.

The pile on which I place it grows ever taller, because every day there’s more to read. The pile must compete with a steady influx of the New Yorker and Newsweek magazines (both relentless weeklies – I get only one monthly, National Geographic.)

The New Yorker is especially challenging because I like to rip out the good cartoons to distribute to various acquaintances. Like here’s one for my son, the industrial designer:

And here’s one for a friend considering surgery:

The only good news is that I’ve managed to cut my junk mail and catalog intake to almost zero. (This demands dogged dialing to each company’s 800 number.)

Two spots compete to attract the most paper: the end of my kitchen counter, and the top of my desk. It’s an all or nothing proposition. If the space is clear, I can stay on the wagon… for awhile.

But then I have a little slip; maybe I get too busy to put things away before I rush off to the next thing. “I’ll just put it here for now…” I tell myself, as I set a piece of paper on the counter top.

I should know by now I can’t just save one piece of paper. Before I know what hit me I’m buried again.

How buried? Imagine an exhibit at the Natural History Museum, where you’ve got a cross-section of the earth’s layers…

The top-most layer is light and fluffy – mostly current newsprint, Toyota tuneup coupons and an occasional offer for a 2-for-1 dinner.  That’s about six inches deep.

The next 6” layer is more compressed – printouts of articles I read online, reports, manuals, magazines yet to be ripped into. Printer paper doesn’t fluff as nicely as ripped newsprint.

From time to time, I moisten the pile with a cup of spilled coffee or tea. Using both hands like salad tongs, I turn the pile as I seek some piece of wisdom I know is about halfway down. This serves to aerate the pile nicely. Over time, the lowest layers begin to heat up and decompose.

The bottom six inches is where my addiction begins to pay off. That’s where I’ve got dark brown crumbly compost, complete with happy earthworms. It grows great tomatoes.

You may ask, what have I tried to cure my addiction?

I had great hopes when it was rumored that the advent of computers would bring us the paperless office. This didn’t work for me: my computer just brought me in contact with MORE articles I wanted to print.

I tried taping my eyes shut so I could no longer read. I tried going cold turkey – installing a paper detection/rejection system at the door.

But then I found myself rifling through my neighbor’s recycle bins in the middle of the night seeking day-old paper.

So, now I’ve hit bottom and I’m here at Paperholics Anonymous. Can you help me?