Will Recycling Survive the Recession?

The question here is more like "will recycling as a money spinner for authorities" and municipal recyclers survive the depression...

The point is that we can make recycling survive the recession and even a depression if we bring the work associated with it “home”, so to speak.

by Michael Smith

The recycling industry worldwide is in a state of panic, as it is hit by two forces beyond its control.

The first problem is the economy, which is headed down the tube rather rapidly and whether or not the likes of the chief of the Federal Reserve or the Chancellor of the Exchequer et all keep telling us that it will all over within this year – when they come and live on this here planet from their parallel universe they may actually discover reality – it is headed down fast.

This results in the demand for consumer products being down (really?) and retailers are focusing on price versus value.

China, presently the manufacturer of the world's products, is not ordering recycled polymer and China also is not taking in any recyclables for reprocessing either.

In fact, a large number of factories in China are closing down due to lack of demand. On top of this, as recycling is a commodity industry, the price of plastic is directly related to the price of gas, and gas prices are low.

If you make virgin plastic, your costs are directly dependent on energy costs. However, if you are a recycler, your costs are not in the making of the plastic, but in the collection and sorting of it – and these costs are not as dependent on energy costs.

Therefore, recyclers are faced with a problem that may be beyond a solution: They are forced to collect and incur costs – due to their municipal collection contracts – on a material that is worth 50% of what it used to be months ago and they cannot sell it anyway since there is less demand. The result of all of this is predictable: recycling centers are closing at a record pace.

Some people predict now that if nothing changes in 2009 the recycling industry could die. The problem, as I have indicated already, is not the recyclables but that everyone is looking for a quick buck here and is not interested in really reducing the landfill load and all that. It has everything to do with money and how much can be made from the sale of recyclables.

Hold for a moment! Why not do the work at home and collect and reprocess, rework, into salable goods?

There is a twist to all of this doom and gloom. Perhaps it will allow us to revisit the idea of recycling and why it is a risky proposition. If you define waste as a something you are willing to pay to get rid of then the approach to recycling is only 50% efficient. In other words when you make a plastic bottle you spend resources – that is to say, money and energy – to create plastic and then additional resources to turn that plastic into a bottle. When a recycler gets that bottle they view the plastic as valuable and the shape as waste since they spend resources to destroy the shape to get to the valuable plastic.

If recyclers didn't focus on being a commodity business, they could instead collect soda bottles, clean them, sort them by volume (noting there are only a few shapes since most everything in our globalized system is standardized) and become a company that sold bottles to companies like TerraCycle. Not only would recyclers by definition become the cheapest source of packaging in America, they would also be the greenest source.

As Buckminster Fuller said, "Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value."

And how right he was for it has been shown by countries who, for instance, use “scrubbers” in factory and power station chimneys that even sulfur and other valuable materials can be harvested from the smoke. So, why it is not being done everywhere?

But even by selling the collected soda bottles, cleaned and sorted, to companies such as TerraCycle so-called recyclers would still be nothing bot commodity brokers in the end phase.

The term recycler here in some cases is rather misleading, is it not, for all those recyclers with a municipal contract do, in the main, is collect and sort recyclables and then sell those to those that reprocess the recyclables again into such things as polymers, etc.. They do not actually make anything with the stuff that they collect.

Now true recyclers reprocess the material themselves and that is an industry that we must create and encourage. Home-grown this must be as well. It just does not compute to send the recyclables to China and then get the products back from there. It must be, and indeed it is, as can be seen from the small number of recycler/re-processors in Britain, for instance, possible to produce products at a decent price at home.

Let's revisit everything we consider "waste" since the solution many times lies in that realization.

© M Smith (Veshengro), 2009