The Great Illusion (cont.)

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But that’s changed. Prices dipped to less than 50 percent of what they were 2 years ago, so what was a service that paid for itself has become a drain on already-stretched municipal and state budgets. The market downturn is causing some cities (Atlanta and Milwaukee among them) to think about raising their fees. Kitsap County, Wash., already raised its fees $2.79 per month in 2009.  Pembroke, Mass., hiked its annual fee about $30 a year. Other cities are slashing their programs entirely or contracting them out to third-party recyclers.

Recycling’s Global Market Shifts

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The price for recycled paper on the West Coast is $20 to $25 a ton, down from $105 in the fall of 2008, Schwab says. Before October, New York City received around $50 a ton for recyclable paper. Now, it is being paid $10 a ton.

And it’s not just paper that nosedived. Earlier this year, on average, tin was worth $327 a ton. It’s now down to $5 a ton! The price for plastic sank to 6 cents per pound from more than 15 cents per pound. At these prices, Schwab says, cities will have to pay just to get rid of recyclables. And we all know who ultimately would foot that bill!

According to most recyclers, these market fluctuations should have been expected. Unfortunately, a lot of recycling programs started when prices were high. Municipal and private recycling programs that didn’t account for the drop in prices unsurprisingly fared poorly. And so what did many of them do? They heaped the problem on homeowners and residents

“There needed to be a market correction no matter what—it was just too outrageously high a year and a half ago,” says Sarah Kite, who is director of recycling services for Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corp. (RIRRC), which handles recycling for Rhode Island.

Kite’s team was one of the few who budgeted for the major downturn. But those who relied on the high prices to fund their programs now must pay for the programs some other way, Schwab says. In other words, they’re going to charge you more—or drop the service that so many Americans believe is necessary if they are going to be good citizens of Planet Earth.

And that’s the case just in places where there’s a depressed market. Where there’s no market at all, cities and towns are forced to relocate the paper, plastics and aluminum to a landfill or send them to incinerators! In addition to violating the principle of recycling—reuse of materials—disposal of waste in a landfill or incinerator also costs residents money—a nasty double-dip.

“Unlike burning garbage or paying tipping fees to bring it to a landfill, recycling offers the opportunity to recoup some of the cost of waste management,” says Allen Hershkowitz, who is director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) national solid-waste project and  paper-industry reform project. But now it seems to be something of a money pit for consumers.

THE BLIND LEAP. So, how can you be sure that your recyclables are actually being recycled and not just ending up in a landfill or an incinerator? You can call the recycling contact for your city to inquire about where your recyclables are going. They can at least tell you whether they’ve been sold with the intention of being used to make other products, but the tracking typically stops there.

Recycling programs vary from city to city, and there’s no national tracking system. Information regarding what’s being stockpiled is anecdotal, at best. Container Recycling Institute, Greenpeace and NRDC keep an eye on where recyclables are shipped, but their statistics are limited to a few individual cities that they targeted in small studies. You can’t be absolutely certain where your recyclables are headed.

However, there are some cities where you can feel confident that the recycling program is doing its job. Ultimately, the cities that are the best equipped to weather the ups and downs of the market are those that have formed relationships with multiple buyers. Because its recycling facilities don’t have a lot of extra room for stockpiling materials, RIRRC needs “to turn recyclables around ideally in 48 hours,” Kite says. “If one buyer goes down or is eliminated, we need to be able to move immediately to another buyer.”

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