MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The world economy maybe measured by how much the GDP grows and shrinks, by inflation rates and housing starts, but it's really the product of millions and millions of decisions all of us make every day. A case in point - what one Christmas wish has to do with the global cycle of trash. From member station KPLU, Chana Joffe-Walt explains.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: So, I'm at this dinner party, and I'm introduced to yet another reason for the downturn in our economy - my friend Lucas.
LUCAS: It's really ridiculous. I mean, it's really ridiculous. I look at TVs online at least every other day.
JOFFE-WALT: Lucas has been pining for a 42-inch flat-screen TV. He makes a good salary at a tech company in Seattle. And a year ago, he totally would have sprung for the two-year, no interest financing. But his company's gone through two rounds of layoffs this year. There's bad economic news on the radio everyday. He really, really wants this TV.
LUCAS: But I'm not going to get it.
JOFFE-WALT: And you don't think you're going to get it under your Christmas tree?
LUCAS: There's absolutely no way. There is zero way.
JOFFE- WALT: Now, I'm telling you about Lucas to call attention to the choice he just made. The same choice many of you are making over and over everyday to hold back. Choices that - and it's hard to imagine this, but every time we make them, they have hundreds of little invisible consequences - sometimes large global consequences. Lucas' has to do with waste.
Portland, Oregon - I'm at the base of a mountain of recycling. Tons of cans, beer boxes, newsprint, there's a plastic jug right there that used to hold whipped margarine. I'm here with John Dryden. He's an exporter of this stuff.
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JAFFE-WALT: So, I look at this and I see a big, huge pile of trash, and you look at this and you see money?
Ms. JOHN DRYDEN (Owner, Paper Fibers America): Yeah, most of the time.
JOFFE-WALT: John runs a wastepaper exporting business called Paper Fibers America, a business that has been transformed by small choices like Lucas'. Bear with me. First, here's how it normally works. You put your recycling out on the curb or you take it to the recycling center. Someone picks it up, brings it to a place like this, where all the cardboard and newsprint gets separated and baled up. John then buys it and sells it to Asia. And by Asia, John mostly means China.
Mr. DRYDEN: China does not have an indigenous source of fiber supply. So they have to import recycled paper. And they use that to make new boxes and those boxes can go to package goods that are exported to the U.S. and Europe.
JOFFE-WALT: So we send them our recycling, they turn it into cardboard boxes and send it back to us with stuff inside of it.
Mr. DRYDEN: Pretty much.
JOFFE-WALT: The past couple years have been incredibly good to wastepaper exporters. Demand from Asia is huge, and speaking just in terms of volume, wastepaper is one of our top exports. So, beautiful summer in Portland, things are sailing along for John Dryden. And then, October arrives. John gets a call from his sales team in China with a warning. Hundreds of containers are arriving full of waste paper, and no one is picking them up.
Mr. DRYDEN: And at the time that I heard it, I was a little skeptical because we hadn't seen that kind of activity before. But several weeks later, we started seeing it virtually with almost every customer.
JAFFE-WALT: So, what does that mean? That means that someone in China has ordered from you, and you've sent it over in a ship, in the sea and it gets there and they say, we don't want it?
Mr. DRYDEN: Exactly.
JAFFE-WALT: Bales and bales of abandoned cardboard and newsprint just sitting at Chinese ports. Now, right before this, wastepaper prices have been really high all summer long - July, August, September. October comes and suddenly, they fall off a cliff.
Mr. DRYDEN: The material that was selling for, you know, $150 a ton was now selling for 20. I mean, that was pretty breathtaking.
JAFFE-WALT: And that had never happened before?
Mr. DRYDEN: No, no. We had not seen that kind of behavior happen before.
JAFFE-WALT: So, what happened? Lucas didn't buy his flat-screen TV. OK, not just Lucas, but hundreds of thousands of people didn't buy TVs. Millions more didn't buy kitchen appliances and dolls and shoes, which means factories in China are making fewer cheap electronics and dolls and shoes and need fewer boxes to put all that stuff in. And that's not only bad news for John Dryden and wastepaper exporters. It brings up a totally different question. If China doesn't want our recycling anymore, what happens to it?
Mr. DRYDEN: You know, obviously, recycling is based on an economic need for that material. All right, if there ceases to be a economic need, well, you know, that may not mean it gets recycled.
JAFFE-WALT: You're talking about landfills?
Mr. DRYDEN: Yeah. Well, we saw that with some of our accounts - the landfill option was the cheapest option.
JAFFE-WALT: This isn't happening a lot, at least, not yet. But it is a small irony that kept banging around in my head talking to John. If we don't consume, if you don't buy your kids loads of highly packaged stuff for Christmas, and if you hold off on that IKEA shelf, and Lucas doesn't splurge on that flat-screen he's so desperately wants, our entire system of recycling suffers. For NPR News, I'm Chana Jaffe-Walt.
NORRIS: Find out how other small decisions can have big economic consequences by going to our "Planet Money" podcast and blog. You'll find that at npr.org/money.