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Recyclable materials tell a story of economics
Amount of cardboard indicates levels of household spending
Emily Zamfir of Gainesville recycles cardboard Wednesday at the Hall County Recycling Center. Corrugated cardboard can be used as an indicator of how well the economy is fairing. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

To Rick Foote, the towers of tightly packed materials at the Hall County Recycling Center are full of economic trends.

How's the housing market doing? Are people buying new carpet? Did retailers have a good Christmas?

The answers are all here, according to Foote, the county's natural resources coordinator.

"We are part of the economy. Many consumer goods are made out of recycled materials, like cars. Homes are made out of recycled materials, the carpeting, the walls. These tiles can be made out of newspaper," he said pointing to the floor of his Chestnut Street office. "So there's less construction going on, less remodeling going on, that reduces the demand for materials with recycled content."

And that means less products coming in and out of the recycling center. By measuring the ebb and flow of those materials - be it green glass, brown glass, colored plastic, clear plastic, or shredded paper - Foote said he can measure the strength of the local and national economies.

It's an odd economic indicator. But one that's strangely accurate, especially when looking at corrugated cardboard, Foote said.

"Name something that didn't at some point in its life come packaged in a cardboard box," he said "...How about a TV? What's it packaged in? A cardboard box. How do all of the pieces and parts get shipped to an automotive factory to get assembled into a car? They came in various cardboard boxes. So movement (and) demand of cardboard is an economic indicator."

The cardboard box method was reportedly a preferred indicator of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Foote has always tracked the amount of recyclables coming in and out of the center, but he began equating it to economic strength a few years ago. He said that over the last decade, there have been two major drops in cardboard being processed.

One in 2001, Foote said, came as people slowed spending after 9/11. The other, in 2008, shows when the current economic downturn began.

Tracking the price of corrugated cardboard sold at the center is also a strong economic indicator, Foote said. Right now, it is moving the material at about $160 per ton. In 2008, that price dropped down to about $20 per ton.

Based on all of these recycling-based indicators, Foote said, the local and national economics are improving after a serious downturn in 2008.

"We can tell the strength of the economy by how slammed we get after Christmas," he said. "And I think this year we got slammed pretty good."


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