Guest Blogger – Scott Mouw
His take -
When recycling first started growing in North Carolina, it was in reaction to a disposal crisis: old landfills were filling up rapidly and new landfills were going to be very expensive due to new EPA regulations, in addition to being very difficult to site. But as recycling has grown, the reasons to recycle have also shifted. Now, domestic industry and foreign economies, especially China, have come to rely more and more on recovered materials as their principle feedstock.
So, whereas all newspaper used to be made from trees, now many huge newsprint mills rely solely on recovered newspaper plus some recycled magazine stock. The steel, aluminum, glass and plastics industries around the world that all make products we use every day – a beer bottle, a car, paper towels and tissue, a laundry detergent bottle, carpet, aluminum cans – all now are more dependent than ever on recycled materials that the public puts in curbside and drop-off bins all over North Carolina.
Because of this growing demand - and again especially from China where steel, plastics and paper industries have been built almost entirely around the use of recycled materials - recycling markets saw very good times of steadily rising prices for about five to six years. Not only were recycled materials riding the expansion of the global economy, but because of their use, growth was also outstripping virgin material use in global manufacturing and recycled prices were accelerating that much faster. Throw in the rising cost of energy through much of the 2000s, the high cost of some virgin material, and some speculative behavior and conditions even more strongly favored recyclables.
In late 2008, money stopped flowing and the world stopped buying things. When people and businesses stop buying things – including big things like cars and houses – commodity demand drops like a rock. Look at what happened (and is still happening) to oil. Thus the price for recyclables, as core industrial commodities, also dropped like a rock. In some ways, it is a backhanded compliment to its success that recycling has been hit so hard by the recession. Recyclables have so penetrated the manufacturing sector worldwide that when consumer demand for products goes into a spiral, recycled commodities fall completely in tandem.
Because the current market downturn, as serious as it has been, will gradually improve, the last thing we want to do is un-train the public to recycle. The world’s industries literally depend on the public in separating commodities from waste. There may be times when the economy is so bad that some commodities suffer enough to be disposed. But that will be very rare, and it should not distract community recycling programs or the public from what recycling is now all about – feeding necessary commodities to the U.S. and world industries. Prices will rise again, perhaps even hit another bubble, and they will fall. But the fundamental need to recycle is greater than ever – and also more connected than ever - to the health of the world economy.