Friday, February13, 2009
Down in the dumps
As foreign and domestic demand for recyclable materials rose over the past few years, so did municipal revenues tied to recycling programs, resulting in a win-win for towns and the environment. With trash being converted to newfound “treasure,” recycling became easier for the environmentally conscious as towns expanded recycling capacity and improved their recycling process. Businesses also jumped on board to create a revenue stream by recycling paper, cardboard and more.
Recycling revenues cyclical
But the global economic downturn has led to a crash in trash, underscoring the reality of economics as a primary driver of growth in the recycling industry. Demand and price per ton of recyclables, such as paper, cardboard and plastics, have plunged along with the Dow. In Carlisle, the price for recycled paper and cardboard was at a high of $65 per ton as recently as last summer, but slid to a low of $20 a ton in early fall. Only glass, due to strong domestic demand, has held its value.
Instead of being processed into new items, recyclable materials are now piling up on the lots of recycling companies and piers across the country. While prices for recyclable materials are expected to rebound, profitability is highly sensitive to markets. Recycling rides a roller coaster of economic cycles, making it unreliable as an income source and vulnerable as a “green” strategy for dealing with waste.
In spite of this unexpected and precipitous downturn in profits, recycling remains a bargain. When compared with the expense of the alternatives – landfills and incineration – recycling still “pays” in the Northeast. In Carlisle, for example, the cost to the town to dispose of non-recycled material is $70 a ton. While recycling profits have slumped and may be disappointing, recycling still makes economic sense. The high cost of waste disposal for non-recycled tonnage points to another way to make money from trash: reducing waste “up front.”
“Reduce, reuse and recycle” are the three R’s of an environmentally based waste management system. While recycling has gotten most of the attention, its focus is on the tail end of the waste stream pipeline.
On a personal level, reducing waste involves consuming with an eye on the following:
• product durability: buying products that will last and cultivating an anti-disposable/anti-“planned obsolescence” mentality;
• packaging: believing “less is more” environmentally speaking and considering the content of post-consumer recycled materials used in packaging; • sustainability: buying products that require less energy to produce and use; choosing products made from renewable rather than non-renewable sources; • quality rather than quantity: buying less, but “better,” merchandise, and avoiding impulse and “trend” buying.
Another approach: zero waste
At the policy level, approaches such as the Sierra Club’s Zero Waste and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) initiatives have led to a reconsideration of the notion of and responsibility for waste within the private and public sector. Unlike recycling, zero waste begins at the design stage to ensure that resources involved in the entire life-cycle of the product, including the energy to produce goods, can be “captured” and reused in the future. EPR adds an accountability factor for producers and consumers to ensure that the following principles are adhered to:
• designing goods to reduce to a minimum the amount of materials, energy, and toxic substances used;
• providing for repair and reuse to extend service life of materials and products and
• recycling to conserve as much as possible.
Cash rewards for returning used ink jet and toner cartridges from printers, “bottle bill” legislation, computer take-back programs and energy capture and efficiency programs are examples of Zero Waste and EPR policies in practice. Making reuse, repair and recycling as easy as buying new products is one outcome of a Zero Waste and EPR approach.
Is trash, like death and taxes, inevitable? Strategies like Zero Waste and EPR lead to a different conclusion, one that is based on a redefinition of waste resulting in more thoughtful and creative reuse of the limited resources of a finite planet. “Re-use it or lose it” may well become the new order of the waste management future. (Find a comprehensive report on trash at: http://tinyurl.com/cargdm.)
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito