Recycling and the Recession: How More Waste, Less Money and New Layoffs are Affecting Waste Management

More people are recycling than ever, but with the recession, can waste management groups still afford to process recyclables?


Waste management companies have more waste to process and fewer workers to handle the load, at the same time that the monetary return for raw materials is plummeting — and some people are concerned that all this means their recyclables might be headed to the landfill.


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Among the most common items kept out of landfills are various forms of food and beverage packaging. Topping that list, nearly half of all aluminum cans are recovered. In fact, according to Earth 911, a recycling database and advocacy website, more than 113,000 aluminum cans are recycled every minute.

But, while more goods are being recycled, the value of the raw materials has crashed in the past several months. According to Earth 911, cardboard sold for about $135 per ton in September, but dropped to $35 in the following months. Mixed paper went from $105 per ton in October to $25 in March. In late 2008, the value of aluminum cans plunged from almost $1,600 per ton to $800.

What does this mean for recycling?

Even before these prices dropped, some worried that the waste hauler or city government might trash those valuable materials if the landfill was a more cost-effective option. These concerns are only heightened when people who make an effort to recycle hear news reports about recycling warehouses stacked with unsold cardboard or local governments cutting back their waste-reduction programs — such as in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times.

The newspaper reported that as a result of the global economic recession, some of the bottles and cans citizens set aside for recycling were instead being dumped in the landfill. Apparently, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had to slash labor hours at its material recovery facility — the warehouse where recyclables are sorted, processed and baled. In the past several months, the prices for recovered paper, metal and plastic had declined so precipitously that the value of the commodities recovered from Los Angeles’ waste stream wasn’t enough to cover the operation’s full-time expenses. With reduced manpower to sort the cans and bottles, thousands of pounds of recyclables started heading to the landfill. 

However, it seems that this situation in Los Angeles county is an exception. Even in this tough economic climate, several experts say we shouldn’t fear our recyclables are going to waste, as there’s little incentive for waste haulers to simply bury recyclables in a landfill. Aluminum, in particular, is a useful commodity even when the economy is lagging.

“It takes 95 percent less energy to make a new aluminum can out of recycled aluminum than from virgin aluminum,” says Jennifer Berry, Earth911 manager of public and strategic relations. “So the profitability of using reclaimed material is so far superior that it’s just inherently valuable.”

That reclaimed material also has chemistry on its side, says Brian Taylor, editor in chief of Recycling Today, a national trade magazine. Aluminum can be molded into a can, recycled by a customer and reprocessed over and over again without a loss of product quality. It’s a quick turnaround, too. An empty 7-Up can is reprocessed and back on the grocery store shelves in as little as two months.

While the majority of recycled paper and cardboard products have to be shipped to the manufacturing sector in China, Taylor says, a large percentage of aluminum cans re-circulate in North America.

“Soda and beer are a little more recession proof,” he says. “People are drinking just as much Coke and Budweiser as they were a year ago.”

Taylor isn’t naïve, though. He acknowledges that, in recent months, there have surely been isolated cases in which waste management companies dumped aluminum cans and other recyclables into the landfill to save themselves the trouble of dealing with a sluggish market.

According to Tisha Petteway, the EPA’s national spokesperson on solid waste issues, the federal government can’t ensure that trash haulers always keep their word.

“It’s hard for us to regulate that, which is why it’s more or less a local issue,” she says.

No need to worry

Luckily, the deck is stacked in the consumer’s favor. Waste management companies typically are legally bound to meet their recycling commitments.

“Municipal contracts are carefully written now so a company that collects newspapers and bottles and cans for recycling is taking a pretty big risk by sending them to the landfill,” Taylor says.

Perhaps more importantly, burying recyclables is like burning cash. Whether it’s more than $200 or less than a single dollar, paper, plastic and aluminum are still worth something. “Once it goes to a landfill, the value has been completely lost,” Berry says. It also takes up expensive space, ultimately increasing the significant costs of maintaining and expanding a landfill.

Take it from Tom Coffman, a spokesperson for Deffenbaugh Industries, one of the largest waste haulers in the Midwest. He doesn’t mince words about the economic downturn and decline in commodity prices. “It’s been God awful,” he says with a rueful laugh. But Coffman says the company has been in the recycling business for nearly two decades. They’ve built relationships with vendors and they’re not about to break their consumer trust — and city contract — by needlessly filling their $600,000 landfill with items that were meant for recycling.

For those concerned about whether their recyclable materials are actually being recycled, the best advice is simply to play by the rules, says Ed Skernolis, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C.

“The first thing is to be a conscientious recycler,” he says. “Know what you can mix together and what you need to remove. If you know all the little rules it makes it easier for the community to recycle.”

5/17/2009 3:50:04 PM

It's an improvement that 33% of America is recycling; unfortunately that’s still a small percentage. I hope there is State and Federal government intervention, in the near future, to shoot for a higher 75% recycling effort. Unfortunately, I’m sad to say, this is too hard and high of a goal for the US to accomplish. The US is struggling to be number one at anything right now. Unfortunately again, right now in the US, war and gay marriage seems to be more important. I think it’s too bad that the US hasn't seen the light yet, perhaps by setting immediate goals for top priority issues first or by perhaps learning from ALL its past mistakes, instead of just repeating mistakes over and over again. It’s unfortunate and I hate to say it, but nothing will get done until it’s too late, just look at the US history. Anyways I do my recycling and I TRY to convince my neighbors but there’s only so much one person with little resources or "money" can do. I can’t change laws nor can I drastically influence the market. The US should have a top ten priority list. Number one, become energy independent, but on that top ten list, should be to significantly increase recycling capabilities, regulations and laws in residential, business and government settings. This sounds like a good focus or goal for the USA to me. Let’s solve, complete our important problems first in this country then we can talk about other issues.

birgitta samavarchian_2
5/11/2009 10:14:53 AM

In light of this article and a series of others and national newscasts recently, I would like to highlight how waste disposal is handled in Vienna/Austria, a city with a population of 1.7 Mio. Roughly 1 mio. tons of waste are incurred there per year. This includes: 601,000 tons of household and hospital waste, bulk items and street waste (58%) 80,760 tons of inert waste from construction (about 8%), 235,000 tons of recyclable items (about 23%) 113,000 tons of compost (about 11%) and 7,000 tons of hazardous waste (0.7%). This amounts to approx. 357 kg per person a year, in contrast to 383 kg which the average Canadian produces a year according to your article. Waste diversion differs from Toronto in the following ways: In Vienna, recyclable item collection is being done in separate containers, like it used to be here. There are also hazardous waste (e.g. cooking and motor oils, paint, batteries) and recycling depots available to the public. For larger items, pick ups can be scheduled for a nominal fee. Vienna also encourages numerous smaller initiatives to curb garbage, e.g. a "dish washing vehicle" and cup deposits at big events and large receptables at public swimming pools and other outdoor venues. Cleaning crews are picking out any non-recycled items such as plastic bottles and cans from the public regular garbage. This resulted in 100 tons of recyclable waste in 2008 that could be diverted from landfill sites. Another important factor is that recycled items, e.g. paper, glass, metal go back to companies that reuse them as opposed to shipping them overseas. Hazardous waste goes only to companies that are allowed to deal with such material. Separately collected plastic bottles are going to a plastic sorting company where they are sorted by colour and material for reuse. Green bin waste is taken to a special composting factory where it is submised to a natural composting process whose end product is either bei

5/11/2009 7:42:56 AM

I live in a county that until recently was mainly agricultural based farmland. People had burn barrels and buried the family trash. It's only been in the last 20 years that we have participated in a recycling program and it is very limited. Only 1's and 2's are allowed and even then the people who man our trash sites monitor what goes in and can turn away things that clearly state are in those categories. We even had one man who insisted that the bins were taken directly to the landfill and dumped out, that those of us who were attempting to recycle were "wasting your time". With this economy, I expect to see much more of this as county governments clamp down with budget cuts.

richard kanak_1
5/11/2009 7:32:29 AM

The public should be insistent that local government does its part to support recycling by purchasing products made from recyclables and renewables. A not insignificant issue related to this is that the product also be made in the USA.