at what cost do we recycle?


You may have heard this piece on NPR’s All Things Considered in December which discussed how the recycling industry has been affected by the downturn in consumerism.  A majority of this downturn is economic-based, not because the majority of society has realized we don’t need as much stuff as we have been led to believe.  But the end result is temporarily the same.  We are buying less packaged goods.  In my opinion that is a good thing.  But, (yes there is a but) that does affect our current system of recycling.

As is stated in the NPR piece, we buy things, we take them home, we un-package them and (if we’re lucky) we put that packaging in the recycling bin on the curb.  Or, as in my case, we head to a nearby recycling center like Walser’s.  But that’s just one step in a long chain of activities.  Let’s see if I can catch them all.  Product is made and packaged.  Product is purchased and packaging is recycled.  (It’s my dream this is always the case, just let me dream.)  A government entity or business entity takes the recycled packaging and sells it to a recycling distributor.  This distributor sells it to a processor to recycle said packaging into new packaging (or in the rare instance, new consumables).  And this could be cardboard packaging, plastic packaging, glass packaging, metal packaging, you name it, I’m not discriminating.

The issue at hand seems to be that because the US is consuming less product there is less packaging to sell to the processors.  Is that good for the environment?  You bet.  And as I said, I fully support this.  I wish this was the end of the story.  But it’s the 21st century and the majority of society revolves around business not ethics.  Not what I would choose just what I happen to see as fact.  I know I can change my percentage of this and obviously I have chosen to for my family.  But I’m less than a cog in the wheel of American society.  So we’re back to less packaging to be sold.  And that’s the key word, sold.  Not less.  Recycling, like most everything is a business.  Is it a business that helps the environment?  You bet.  Do the people at the top of every recycling/processing company/plant care about the environment.  I doubt it.  They do care about making a profit.

Currently, a majority of our recycling is done in China.  Why?  A lot of reasons.  Fewer regulations.  Cheaper labor.  They make a majority of the product that needs packaging so it can be shipped back to the US.  Is this good for the environment.  Of course not.  Eco Child’s Play published an article following the NPR story.  As was illustrated there, one solution is to do more of the recycling here in the US.  Create more product in the US, create more recycled packaging in the US.  Why ship to another country what could be done right here?

If only it were so simple.  There are recycling plants in the US.  There is a desire keep that business local.  But the same economic rules apply.  If the amount of recycled material is decreasing the plants cannot process what they don’t have and make the same profit margin as they have in the past.  And by profit margin I mean enough cash flow to pay for the processing, there’s not a gold mine inside every recycling plant.  When I dropped my last load of recycling off at Walser’s earlier this week, I was told the company they sell to is considering not taking paper and plastic any longer.  And this is a US processor who sells to a US recycling plant.  They don’t ship it overseas.  They just can’t make a profit anymore.

Am I saying buy more stuff to save the recycling plants?  No.

Though the current down swing of shopping means there are crates of fibers not being used, it also means that there will be less coming in. Supply and demand, even in recycling, eventually even themselves out. With fewer packages being used the supply of packaging being recycled will also diminish.†

I agree with this concept.  The issue goes back to the current business market though.  As we wait for the supply and demand to even out, we are going to lose some of our recycling options.  Plants may close, processors will buy fewer recyclable materials and companies like Walser’s will stop collecting my paper and plastic.  I’m not writing this as an unbiased news article.  I am simply an eco-friendly steward, mother and yes, consumer.  I do not have the answer but I do think we need to help keep the recycling plants open.  What does that mean?  Provide more recyclable material?  Subsidize the plants?  Subsidize the companies that use recycled materials to incentivize them?  I don’t know.  I do know the whole thing boggles me.  And I don’t want to find another way to dispose of my paper and plastic.

[†Should We Consume More to Recycle More? Eco Child’s Play, December 23, 2008]

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2 Comments to “at what cost do we recycle?”

  1. It all makes my head spin. Wouldn’t it be great if nothing had consequences?

  2. Emma James, I wish there was a way ethics, environmentalism and business could be more in sync. Unfortunately, I also think we are light years away from that. But baby steps or leap years, as long as we are headed in the right direction.

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