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Does it still pay to recycle?

Yes, Recyclable materials are still selling, but prices have plummeted

POSTED: January 11, 2009 12:30 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Papers ready for recycling are bundled together at recycling center.

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A year ago, when the global economy was still booming, anything that could be recycled was a hot commodity.

But those days are gone, and local recycling programs are feeling the pinch.

"The world is a lot smaller than it used to be," said Rick Foote, natural resources coordinator for Hall County. "Just a year ago, I was getting calls directly from overseas vendors. They were desperate for any material I could give them."

Foote said the market for recyclables held steady until late summer, then plummeted.

"The drop was so dramatic," he said. "It went from the highest high to the lowest low in a couple of months."

Foote said in August, corrugated cardboard was selling for $135 a ton; now it fetches just $20. Plastics went for more than 20 cents per pound; now they're worth only 4 cents.

"I've been here since 1992, and these are the lowest prices I've ever seen," he said. "It has affected our revenues substantially."

But the program is not operating at a loss, at least not yet.

"All of our materials are still selling for a price at this point," Foote said. "It's true that things are moving a bit more slowly. The material stays in the building longer because the haulers don't come as often. But we have plenty of storage space, so we're OK. I know that some of the other counties have not been as fortunate."

Small, rural counties are at a disadvantage because they're located far from metro Atlanta, where most of the recycling companies are based. Many vendors don't want to deal with small towns because the volume of material collected isn't worth making the trip.

With prices at rock bottom, some counties find they're spending more on hauling fees than they can earn by selling their recyclables.

That was the case with Dawson County, which recently stopped accepting cardboard, glass and plastic.

"We were losing money on recycling," said Cathy Brooks, government and community affairs representative for Dawson County. "We had to cut back because our vendor cut back."

But the county has no intention of dropping its recycling program. Dawson officials hope to sign a contract with a different vendor who won't charge a hauling fee.

"We expect to save $20,000 within the first year," said Brooks. "Our goal is to at least break even."

Through an intergovernmental agreement, she said, the same vendor would serve both Dawson and Lumpkin County, which has also had to cut back on recycling.

Beyond the savings, there will be advantages for Dawson residents.

"We'll have a single-stream approach, where all the recyclables can be in one container and people won't have to sort them," Brooks said. "And we'll be able to accept more types of plastics."

Far from abandoning recycling, Brooks hopes to expand the program.

"Our citizens want recycling, and we want to be able to provide it for them," she said.

In addition to the recycling center at Dawson's transfer station, county officials hope to create another, as well as some remote drop-off sites.

"Once a new vendor is approved by the board of commissioners, we'll just need to get a new compactor, and we could be up and running within a month," Brooks said.

Local governments are betting that the downturn in recycling is temporary and that these programs will return to profitability before too long.

"Like with everything else, there's good times and bad times," said Tammy Wright, manager of environmental programs for Forsyth County. "I have faith that the market will turn around."

Forsyth, which has three recycling centers, has been able to get by partly because it uses a local vendor whose overhead costs are low.

"We're not getting as much of a rebate as we have in the past, but we're still breaking even," Wright said.

In fact, Forsyth has expanded the list of recyclables the program will accept. Residents can now drop off old books, used cooking oil and plastic bags.

But does it make sense to recycle plastic bags if they're only worth 4 cents a pound, and they're so lightweight that one pound of bags takes up a great deal of space?

In some parts of the United States, towns have decided it's just not worth recycling anymore, especially if they're not forced to do so.

In Georgia, there's less pressure to recycle than there used to be.

"The state used to mandate reducing the waste stream (going to landfills) by 25 percent, through recycling," said Wright. "But they removed that requirement, because there was no way to measure or enforce it."

If every county in Georgia stopped recycling, all of that material would have to go to landfills.

"The state of Georgia has a lot of landfill space, so that's not really a problem," said Chuck Boelkins, an industrial ecologist with Georgia's Pollution Prevention Assistance Division.

But there's more to recycling than just freeing up landfill capacity. Consumers are more environmentally conscientious than ever before. Aware of the threat of climate change, they know that it takes far more energy and resources to make a product from virgin materials than it does to use recycled stock.

If there's anyone who might benefit from the current situation, it's the companies that already make products out of recycled materials.

"The price of the stuff is so cheap - assuming they can get enough of it," said Boelkins.

He said recycling experts have no idea how long the downturn is going to last.

"It all hinges on China," he said. "Their economy had been growing at about 10 percent annually, which is unsustainable. When they slowed down, everything crashed. They've been our biggest export market for cardboard and paper. But they're not manufacturing as many things for us to buy, so they don't need cardboard boxes."

With the global economy almost grinding to a halt, demand for all types of material is down.

"It's the same across the board," said Boelkins. "Prices have dropped for steel, copper, plastics."

An unexpected but welcome side effect may be a drop in crime. For the past several years, local law enforcement agencies have dealt with a rash of thefts involving copper wiring, aluminum and other metals.

But as these materials have lost most of their value, the crime just doesn't pay anymore.

On the other hand, municipal recycling programs have no monetary incentive. Residents who recycle aren't expecting to get paid; they're just doing something they believe will benefit the planet.

"Participation (from the public) is unaffected at this point," said Foote. "People still want to recycle."




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