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Falling Prices Take Toll On Municipal Recycling
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Falling Prices Take Toll On Municipal Recycling

Economy

Falling Prices Take Toll On Municipal Recycling

Falling Prices Take Toll On Municipal Recycling
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Workers sort through recycled paper and cardboard on a conveyor belt at Willimantic Waste Paper Co. i

Workers sort through recycled paper and cardboard on a conveyor belt at Connecticut's Willimantic Waste Paper Co. Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR hide caption

toggle caption Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR
Workers sort through recycled paper and cardboard on a conveyor belt at Willimantic Waste Paper Co.

Workers sort through recycled paper and cardboard on a conveyor belt at Connecticut's Willimantic Waste Paper Co.

Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR
Willimantic's Tim DeVivo stands in front of a pile of mixed paper he can't sell. i

Willimantic's Tim DeVivo stands in front of a 700-ton pile of mixed paper. With low demand for packaging, he is having trouble selling the commodity. Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR hide caption

toggle caption Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR
Willimantic's Tim DeVivo stands in front of a pile of mixed paper he can't sell.

Willimantic's Tim DeVivo stands in front of a 700-ton pile of mixed paper. With low demand for packaging, he is having trouble selling the commodity.

Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR
A truck dumps recycled paper at Willimantic Waste Paper Co. i

Though demand for recycled paper has dropped, trucks from municipal recycling centers continue making deliveries to Willimantic Waste Paper Co. Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR hide caption

toggle caption Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR
A truck dumps recycled paper at Willimantic Waste Paper Co.

Though demand for recycled paper has dropped, trucks from municipal recycling centers continue making deliveries to Willimantic Waste Paper Co.

Nancy Eve Cohen/WNPR

Recycling programs are designed to divert materials out of the waste stream. In recent years, there's been money to be made — by municipalities, the recycling companies that serve them, and the manufacturers that reprocess the paper, cans and plastic into everything from packaging to fabric.

But that's changing. With consumers buying fewer goods, factories don't need as many raw materials.

At the municipal recycling center in Branford, Conn., residents drop off all kinds of items: cans, plastic, paper, cardboard. So far this year, Branford — a town of 29,000 on Long Island Sound — has earned about $93,000 from selling recyclables. But solid waste manager Peg Hall says Branford soon may have to pay to dispose of certain items, such as mixed paper.

In the past, Branford has sold much of its paper to an intermediary that sells to China mills, which recycle it into packaging and cardboard boxes. But the economic slowdown has lowered demand for packaging, says Scott Taylor, a vice president at America Chung Nam, the world's largest exporter of recycled paper.

Taylor, who is based in Jersey City, N.J., says America Chung Nam was buying 400,000 to 500,000 tons of mixed paper a month this summer, when "you could get $70, $80, $90" for a ton. But prices collapsed in October, he says. As of late November, a recycling company had to pay $5 to $10 a ton for its removal.

For Branford, even not getting paid for the paper is preferable to paying a garbage removal rate of $82 a ton, Hall says. "If I can continue to move [paper] for less than it costs us to get rid of it if it were garbage, then the town of Branford still has saved money," Hall says.

Recycling Programs Continue

Despite dropping prices, municipal recycling continues in communities throughout the country. At Willimantic Waste Paper Co. in Willimantic, Conn., workers still sort through truckloads of paper, bottles and cans arriving from cities and towns. They also remove items that can't be recycled.

"We find toasters. We find little ovens. It's amazing the amount of stuff we find," says Tim DeVivo, who with his brother, Tom, represents the third generation to run the company. It sells to paper mills in the United States and Canada.

DeVivo points to a mountain of paper. A few months ago, it was worth $56,000, he says. Now, "I can't sell that for the life of me. I have to pay a paper mill to take it away."

This summer, the plastic used to make water and soda bottles — polyethylene terephthalate, or PET — sold for $300 a ton. Now it's down to $20. Tin is way down, too.

The company is losing millions in revenue, DeVivo says, and he just had to lay off 15 of its 250 employees.

Other recyclers are suffering, too.

The technical director of NAPCOR, the trade organization for the North American PET plastics industry, suggests there should be as much focus on the end use of recyclables as on their collection. "Where that [recycled] material goes after we collect it has not been really thought out, and that's the heart of the problem," Mike Schedler says.

While keeping materials out of landfills has important environmental benefits, Schedler says, "the real benefit to society is making those secondary materials available for remanufacture in the local economy. That's where you get the biggest bang for the buck. That creates jobs. ... That has multiple economic impacts, effects that ripple through the local economy."

A Need For Government Help?

Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says he is concerned the recycling infrastructure won't survive without government help. "If government is going to invest in helping industries recover through this recession," he says, "it should prioritize those investments into ecologically healing industries — like the recycling industry."

Tim DeVivo says he doesn't want government subsidies. But he says that most manufacturers won't choose reclaimed materials just because it's better for the planet. "If a mill finds it's easier to chop down a tree" — and start from scratch, instead of using recycled goods — "they'll chop it down. They don't care. It's all about numbers."

Though prices and profits are down, DeVivo and others in the industry hope people keep recycling. That way, the system still will be intact when the economy rebounds.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a reporter for CPBN Connecticut Public Radio in Hartford, Conn.

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