Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

It’s hard out here on a recycler, part 3

A story in the WaPo about the ongoing struggles of the recycling business.

Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

“If people feel that recycling is important — and I think they do, increasingly — then we are talking about a nationwide crisis,” said David Steiner, chief executive of Waste Management, the nation’s largest recycler that owns the Elkridge plant and 50 others.

The Houston-based company’s recycling division posted a loss of nearly $16 million in the first quarter of the year. In recent months, it has shut nearly one in 10 of its biggest recycling facilities. An even larger percentage of its plants may go dark in the next 12 months, Steiner said.

The problems of recycling in America are both global and local. A storm of falling oil prices, a strong dollar and a weakened economy in China have sent prices for American recyclables plummeting worldwide.

Environmentalists and other die-hard conservation advocates question if the industry is overstating a cyclical slump.

“If you look at the long-term trends, there is no doubt that the markets for most recyclables have matured and that the economics of recycling, although it varies, has generally been moving in the right direction,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who tracks solid waste and recycling in New York.

“And that’s without factoring in the external impact of landfilling or anything else,” he added. “There aren’t a lot of people saying, ‘Send more material to landfills.’ ”

Still, the numbers speak for themselves: a three-year trend of shrinking profits and rising costs for U.S. municipalities — and little evidence that they are a blip.

Trying to encourage conservation, progressive lawmakers and environmentalists have made matters worse. By pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins — while demanding almost no sorting by consumers — the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.

“We kind of got everyone thinking that recycling was free,” said Bill Moore, a leading industry consultant on paper recycling who is based in Atlanta. “It’s never really been free, and in fact, it’s getting more expensive.”

[…]

Clemm, the District’s recycling chief, said small efforts can begin to turn the tide. The District must begin by getting more garbage out of its recycling stream.

“Residents have a way to influence this by making sure they are recycling right,” she said.

Another possibility is to follow the urgings of the environmental community by expanding recycling programs to include composting — the banana peels and grass clippings degrading in landfills that by some estimates have become the nation’s third-biggest source of methane gas contributing to global warming. Composting is partly credited with the success of such cities as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle in increasing the share of the waste stream that is recycled each year.

See here and here for some background. The main thing I take away from this is that however intriguing the One Bin For All possibility may be, I just don’t see how it could be economically feasible at this time. Maybe in the future, and maybe never, but not now. It looks like that education/marketing blitz that opponents of One Bin like the Texas Campaign for the Environment have been advocating as the better alternative is the way we will have to go to ensure that our current recycling arrangements can be sustained. We need to do a better job of getting people to put only recyclables in their bins – and in the public receptacles that are often treated the same as garbage cans – and we need to seriously think about a separate collection process for compostable material, as a number of other cities have done. Needless to say, these are issues that the Mayoral candidates should be addressing, which means they need to be getting asked questions about them. I promise to do my part when it’s my turn to do so (and I have been doing so in many of the Council candidate interviews), but until then it would be nice if someone else thought to do it, too.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.