The Price of Recyclables

  • Mark Murray, with the nonprofit Californians Against Waste, says that in the space of one month, October 2008, the price for mixed paper on the global market plunged from $100 a ton to less than $30. (Photo by Erin Kelly)

If you want to get a sense of how the overall economy is doing, look outside your window the night before garbage and recycling day. Last fall, you’d have seen trucks full of cardboard circling the neighborhood. By winter, the cardboard poachers had disappeared. That’s because wastepaper – like other recyclables – feeds into a multi-billion dollar global commodities market that rises and falls just like housing prices and stocks. Amy Standen has more:

Transcript

If you want to get a sense of how the overall economy is doing, look outside your window the night before garbage and recycling day. Last fall, you’d have seen trucks full of cardboard circling the neighborhood. By winter, the cardboard poachers had disappeared. That’s because wastepaper – like other recyclables – feeds into a multi-billion dollar global commodities market that rises and falls just like housing prices and stocks. Amy Standen has more:

Last winter, Carolyn Almquist had a problem. Carolyn’s in charge of exports for APL transportation in Oakland, California. It’s her job to move shipping containers full of American exports, like wastepaper, to factories over in Asia. The problem was, the factories in Asia didn’t want them.

“There was no buyer. It would arrive at our terminal, say, in Jakarta, and no one would pick it up.”

Asian paper mills were canceling deals with the ships halfway across the Pacific. And Carolyn – who’s in charge of APL’s exports – was the first to hear about it.

“I’m getting an email saying, ‘what are you people doing? Don’t send stuff without a buyer.’”

Waste paper is the country’s number one export, by volume, so when prices fall, it’s not just Carolyn who’s in trouble.

“Hey, Alex, good morning! Steve Moore calling.”

Steve runs a company called Pacific Rim Recycling, 40 miles north of San Francisco.

“Got any updates for me on the marketplace?”

Every day, he calls around to see how much people are paying for things like newspaper, water bottles, old envelopes.

“What about corrugated?”

Most of our recycled cardboard, and a lot of our plastic ends up at Asian factories where it’s turned into iPhone boxes, polyester shirts, that are then shipped right back to the US market.

Until, that is, we stop shopping.

“When people stop buying those goods and products – the VCRS and the TVs from China – there’s no need for the boxes to go around them.”

That’s Mark Murray, with the nonprofit Californians Against Waste. He says that in the space of one month, October 2008, the price for mixed paper on the global market plunged from $100 a ton to less than $30. In two months, plastic water bottles dropped from $500 a ton, to less than $100.

“What recycling experienced in the last six months is really the same thing the entire global economy has been experiencing.”

So, when the economy falters, recyclers suffer. Some shut down entirely. Others were forced to simply dump unsellable paper into local landfills.

Steve Moore hunkered down to wait it out.

“We couldn’t sell anything for six weeks. All this material was backing up, I had to rent space next door. I had to sell it at $10 a ton, just to get rid of it.”

By February, prices had started to recover, as demand for consumer goods began picking up a bit – but they’re no where near the highs of a year ago.

“And a ton of paper today is worth $100 a ton. Last year, it was worth $200 a ton. It’s a very volatile market, so the economics of that are pretty severe.”

One reason the market’s so volatile is that with recyclables, the supply never stops. No matter how much or how little those Asian factories want our cardboard and our plastic water bottles, we are going to keep putting them out on the sidewalk.

Oil manufacturers can turn down the spigot when demand drops, to control supply so it keeps pace with demand. But bales of paper and plastic just take up too much space. And here at Pacific Rim recycling, the trucks keep rolling in.

(sound of bottles and cans at Pacific Rim)

“The volume of this material is huge!”

But at least it’s moving. Prices for our recyclables might be lower than their peak a year ago, but Steve Moore can relax again.

And, over at the Port of Oakland, Carolyn’s no longer getting angry emails.

“Things are picking up again. Financing has freed up. The banks are a little less nervous, If we had a ship here today, she’s be sailing Oakland full. Life is a little bit easier.”

And Carolyn Almquist knows as well as anyone in this industry to enjoy it while it lasts.

For The Environment Report, I’m Amy Standen.

Related Links

Sending a City’s Garbage Up in Flames

  • Michigan Waste Energy Chief Engineer Brad Laesser checks the cameras and emissions data at Detroit's incinerator. (Photo by Sarah Hulett)

Back in the 1980s and 90s,
dozens of communities across
the US built incinerators to
get rid of their trash. Many
of them financed the massive
furnaces with bonds they’re just
now paying off. And now that
those debts are off their books,
some cities are re-thinking whether
burning trash makes environmental
and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

Back in the 1980s and 90s,
dozens of communities across
the US built incinerators to
get rid of their trash. Many
of them financed the massive
furnaces with bonds they’re just
now paying off. And now that
those debts are off their books,
some cities are re-thinking whether
burning trash makes environmental
and economic sense. Sarah Hulett reports:

About 300 garbage trucks dump their loads each day at the nation’s biggest
municipal incinerator.

“You see the conveyor house going across, that’s conveying the fuel to the
boilers.”

That’s Brad Laesser. He’s the chief engineer at the Michigan Waste Energy
facility in Detroit.

The “fuel” he’s talking about is shredded-up trash.

And he says that’s the beauty of facilities like this. They produce electricity.

“So right now we’re putting out about 50 megawatts. But we can go to
here.”

Laesser points to 70 on the output gauge. That’s enough electricity to power
about half the homes in Detroit. And the leftover steam is used to heat and
cool more than 200 buildings downtown.

Sounds great, right?

Well, Brad Van Guilder of the Ecology Center says not so much.

“Be wary of people coming and talking to you about large, expensive magic
machines that are going to dispose of your waste for you.”

Van Guilder says municipal waste incinerators are major contributors to
smog, and spew dangerous pollutants like dioxin, lead and mercury.

And he says huge furnaces like Detroit’s make it nearly impossible to get
viable recycling efforts off the ground.

“Think about what’s in the trash that you throw out every day. One of the
most important components is paper and plastic.”

Both can be recycled. But Detroit has not had a curbside recycling program
for the past 20 years. That’s because the contract with the incinerator
required that all trash picked up at the curb be used to keep the furnaces
burning.

That changed this summer, though – when the contract expired. Now about
30,000 households are part of a curbside recycling pilot project. And there
are drop-off sites where people can take their recyclables.

(sound of recycling center)

Matthew Naimi heads an organization that runs several drop-off sites, and –
maybe surprisingly – he’s okay with the incinerator. Naimi says he sees
trash disposal and recycling as two separate industries.

“I realized that if we shut the incinerator down before we got a good
established recycling program running, we’d be burying our recyclables
instead of burning them.”

And officials with Covanta – which runs the Detroit incinerator – agree that
recycling and incineration can work together.

Paul Gilman is the chief sustainability officer for Covanta. He says landfills
are the problem – not recycling.

“Landfills and energy-from-waste facilities, that’s where the competition is.
It isn’t at the upper step of recycling.”

He says cheap landfill space makes the economics of incineration difficult.

But he’s hoping that could change with the passage of a climate change bill
in Washington. Gilman says in Europe and Asia, trash incinerators like
Detroit’s don’t get treated the same way as power plants fueled with coal or
natural gas.

“So in Asia, under the Kyoto protocols, a facility like this actually generates
what are called greenhouse gas credits. They’re reducing greenhouse gasses
by the act of processing solid waste and keeping it from going to a landfill.”

Where trash produces methane – a potent greenhouse gas.

But the people who want the incinerator shut down say they don’t believe
burning trash is the greener way to go. They want the city to landfill its
waste while it builds an aggressive recycling program.

So far, they’re not getting what they want from city leaders.

The board that oversees how Detroit handles its trash recently voted to go
with incineration for at least the next year.

For The Environment Report, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

San Francisco Makes Composting Mandatory

  • San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom signs mandatory composting into law (Photo courtesy of the Press Office of Mayor Newsom)

San Francisco already leads the
nation in recycling. Now, that
city has the first mandatory
composting law in the country.
Emily Wilson reports that’s got
some people worried about “garbage
cops”:

Transcript

San Francisco already leads the
nation in recycling. Now, that
city has the first mandatory
composting law in the country.
Emily Wilson reports that’s got
some people worried about “garbage
cops”:

Putting recyclables into the blue bin is second nature for people in San Francisco.

But this new law now means also putting coffee grounds and eggshells into a green bin.

There are some people who are concerned about Big Brother looking through their garbage. And then there’s the $100 fine.

Mark Westlund at the Department of the Environment says ‘no worries.’ Not much is going to change.

“Well, we get a lot of calls from people who are worried about garbage cops and that frankly is not going to happen. For years now we’ve been looking in peoples recycling to make sure they’re doing it correctly and if not, they get a tag and if they continue misusing it, they get a letter and a follow up call and then a visit.”

So there are warnings before the fine.

Cities across the country will be watching San Francisco’s mandatory composting law to see how it goes.

For The Environment Report, I’m Emily Wilson.

Related Links

Looking for Answers at the Dump

  • The city of Chicago has hired the company Camp Dresser and McKee to dig through residents' trash and figure out what exactly people are throwing away (Photo by Michael Rhee)

Large cities in the US are still
struggling to find ways to recycle their trash.
That’s because you can’t use the same program
for every high-rise, office building or condo.
One city is trying to attack this problem by
digging through the garbage. Mike Rhee reports:

Transcript

Large cities in the US are still
struggling to find ways to recycle their trash.
That’s because you can’t use the same program
for every high-rise, office building or condo.
One city is trying to attack this problem by
digging through the garbage. Mike Rhee reports:

(sound of trucks beeping)

This is a waste transfer facility on Chicago’s South Side. It’s kind of a temporary dump.

Garbage trucks pick up trash from people’s homes and pile it up here. The piles are then packed
onto even bigger trucks and hauled to landfills far away.

Chris Martel looks over the mounds of trash here. Martel is an engineer, and a solid waste
expert.

“There’s a lot of different paper types here, there’s a plastic bottles, all things that are recyclable.”

But they’re probably not going to be recycled. They’re going to a landfill. That’s why Martel is
here.

He works for a consulting firm called CDM, or Camp Dresser and McKee.

The city of Chicago has hired the company to dig through residents’ trash and figure out what
exactly people are throwing away. Martel has been doing waste sorts like this for more than a
decade.

As we walk to another part of the building, he remembers his first one fondly.

“That’s where I fell in love with my wife, after giving her flowers out of the trash and stuffed
animals out of the trash.”

She didn’t mind they were recycled.

We get to the waste sorting area. There’s a group of workers surrounded by dozens of large and
small bins.

(BOOM)

(laughs) “That boom was the tipper dropping the waste load.”

A rugged, yellow loader dumps about 300 pounds of garbage at our feet. It’s a sample from one
of the large piles in the facility.

A team starts sorting through the garbage.

Scott Keddy is one of them. He picks up a plastic garbage bag.

“We just open it up and see what kind of surprises lie inside, like it could be this #1 plastic PET
bottle, or this rigid, plastic thinga-ma-jobber that did something for somebody at some point,
which is different from that.”

They’re sorting them into 81 different containers. Each one is for a kind of paper, plastic, metal,
food or some other piece of trash.

The point is to figure out how much of each material people are throwing out. And where it’s all
coming from.

Suzanne Malec-McKenna is commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Environment.

She says the tough thing about creating a recycling program in a city like Chicago is the diversity.
Not only do you have residents and businesses creating waste, but restaurants, prisons,
manufacturers for car parts. Each of these creates a different kind of garbage.

The city has been trying to come up with a recycling program that works for everyone for 20
years. Malec-McKenna says the study will help the city decide how to manage it all.

“You can’t have a cookie cutter approach for a city this diverse. You’ve got to come up with a
range of different kind of program options for it. We’ll come up with the right mix.”

But while the city figures recycling out, the garbage will keep piling up in landfills.

Martel, the waste expert, says he hopes that waste is reduced soon. He says most people don’t
understand the sheer quantities of garbage that are out there.

“Unless you physically see and touch it you don’t realize what a large amount it is and what the
implications are and how easy it is to divert these materials.”

Big cities around the country are realizing this, and working on a solution.

For The Environment Report, I’m Michael Rhee.

Related Links

Getting Paid to Recycle

  • If you don't recycle, the bin can make a handy shelf. Cities are trying to get people who don't recycle much or at all... to get into the habit by offering them incentives.

Recycling can have some economic benefits. But as a country, we’re
just not doing that much of it. The US Environmental Protection
Agency says the national recycling rate has been hovering around 30%
for several years now. Rebecca Williams reports some cities
are trying to get people to recycle more… by paying them to recycle:

Transcript

Recycling can have some economic benefits. But as a country, we’re
just not doing that much of it. The US Environmental Protection
Agency says the national recycling rate has been hovering around 30%
for several years now. Rebecca Williams reports some cities
are trying to get people to recycle more… by paying them to recycle:


It’s not easy getting someone to admit they don’t recycle. But I was
over at my friend Andrea’s house for dinner, and she confessed.


(Sound of Andrea opening a can of beans)


“Normally I would take this can and throw it away in the garbage and
never look at it again. I don’t really like cleaning garbage to throw
it away.”


Now in her defense, she doesn’t really produce that much trash to begin
with. Maybe just one small bag a week.


Andrea says it just feels like too much work to recycle. Taking the
labels off, cleaning out the cans, walking down four flights of stairs.
Though they’re indoors and carpeted.


(Sound of garage door opening)


Right now she’s using her recycle bin as a shelf. She’s got some books
and a quart of oil sitting on it.


If Andrea did recycle, she’d have to drag her bin out to the curb from
the garage. About oh, three feet or so.


“In the mornings I run pretty late so just taking the garbage out and
lugging it down the stairs along with my bags for work is quite a hassle in
and of itself and I’m proud of myself for doing that, so… (laughs).”


Now… my friend can’t be the only one out there who doesn’t recycle.
A recent survey found that 28 states reported a decrease in their
recycling rates since 2001.


That’s not good news for cities, because cities can benefit from
recycling. If they can divert enough recyclables from the waste
stream, they can avoid some of the high costs of disposing waste in
landfills.


But even if you have trucks that drive around and pick up people’s cans
and newspapers from their curbs, there’s no guarantee they’ll put them
out there for you.


Unless, of course, you offer them a reward.


Some cities on the East Coast are paying people to recycle. They’re
using a company called RecycleBank.


With RecycleBank, you get a recycling container with a tracking chip
embedded in it. You can toss all your cans and newspapers and bottles
into that one container… so, none of that annoying sorting.


Ron Gonen is the company’s co-founder.


“There’s a mechanical arm on the truck that picks up your container,
reads the chip, identifies that your household recycled and how much
your household recycled. The amount that your household recycled is
translated into RecycleBank dollars.”


Those RecycleBank dollars can be cashed in as coupons to shop at more
than 300 stores.


“We really look at it from the lens of the recycling industry and that if
your household recycles you’re actually creating value, and some of
that value should be passed back to you.”


Gonen says each family can earn up to $400 a year. He says people are
so into it, they’re even bringing stuff from work to recycle at home.
And he says recycling rates have tripled or even quadrupled in
neighborhoods using RecycleBank.


But some cities have found incentives only work up to a point. So
they’re making it against the law not to recycle. Seattle, for
example, won’t pick up your trash if there’s stuff in it that could be
recycled.


Timothy Croll is Seattle’s Solid Waste Director. He says trash
collectors aren’t going through trash cans, but they are peeking in.


“It’s not like we’re taking these things into an MRI or anything like
that it’s just what the garbage collector can see at the top when they
open the lid.”


Croll says the law works. He says only a few trash cans have been left
behind with a note. And Seattle did try incentives first. The city
charges residents less for trash collection if they use a teeny little
trash can and recycle a lot more. Croll says that’s been pretty
successful. But he says the city wanted to push for even more
recycling… so, they made it a law.


“Some tools work better for some people than others. For some people
it might be they know it’s the right thing to do, but their lives are
busy, and unless you give them one more reason they’re just not going
to get over that threshold and do it. It’s like yeah I know, I know I
should floss too, you know?”


Croll says it’s up to cities to first make recycling convenient… And
then try sweetening the deal.


You know, my non-recycling friend DOES recycle her soda cans. She
lives in Michigan, so she gets 10 cents back for each one. It’s enough
of an incentive that she’s saving bags of cans at work and stashing
cans in every corner under her kitchen sink.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Airports Make It Hard for Airlines to Recycle

  • Many airports don't offer airlines recycling, so all those soda cans and other recyclables are going into landfills.

A new report finds most airlines throw away their empty soda cans and other
recyclables. Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

A new report finds most airlines throw away their empty soda cans and other
recyclables.
Mark Brush has more:

The environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, surveyed around 30
airports and airlines about recycling. They found that most don’t do it. The group
estimates the airline industry trashes about 80% of the materials it
uses.

Allen Hershkowitz is with the NRDC. He says that they found the airports with the
best
recycling programs also save the most money:

“In some cases over six figures annually were saved were save by those airports that
had
the highest recycling rates. So really, in this particular case, economic cost
cutting and
ecological intelligence work in a mutually reinforcing way.”

Hershkowitz says airlines are often at the mercy of the airports they fly into. If
there’s no
recycling program in place they have a difficult time sorting out all their used
paper, cans
and bottles.


For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

The Economics of Recycling

More and more Americans have been taking recycling seriously over the last two decades. So much so that today, the EPA says about 30% of the trash Americans produce in their homes is recycled. And the recycling rate for most Midwest states is near that average, but while the agency expects that number to continue to rise, not everyone thinks more recycling is better for the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brodie takes a look at the economics of recycling:

Transcript

More and more Americans have been taking recycling seriously over the last two decades. So much so that today, the EPA says about 30 percent of the trash Americans produce in their homes is recycled. And the recycling rate for most Great Lakes states is near that average. But while the agency expects that number to continue to rise, not everyone thinks more recycling is better for the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brodie takes a look at the economics of recycling.

A small bulldozer collects materials that have sprawled out across the floor of this recycling center…. it then pushes the mound up against a wall. The glass and plastic pile up almost to the ceiling of the building … some ten feet in the air. Welcome to the tipping floor, where workers collect and sort recyclables from the Albany, New York area. Joe Gieblehaus is the solid waste manager for the city. He says Albany officials hope to recycle between 30 and 35 percent of the city’s waste…

“The 30 to 35 gives us I guess the best bang for our buck, basically, recycling is a situation of declining marginal returns. If we try to go after another product in the waste stream, it just costs us more money, and more money, and more money and more money. 30 to 35 seems to give us an economic benefit, the best economic benefit available.”


Albany’s recycling target is similar to that put out by the EPA… and is about the limit that one former EPA assistant administrator says is necessary. Doctor J. Winston Porter was instrumental in starting curbside recycling in the United States in the 1980’s…. but now he says people are taking a good thing too far.

“The last few years, I’ve been somewhat concerned that people are, if anything, aiming too high. You know, I set a 25% goal and there’s nothing wrong with going to 30 or 35 or 40% if you can. But I think many states have set goals of like 50% and I think what we’re doing, we’re getting into an area that’s very non-cost effective and may even hurt the environment because you’re in effect trying to use too much energy and too much processing to recycle too much trash.”


One of those states that’s right about at porter’s limit is Wisconsin. Greg Swanson of the state’s department of natural resources says Wisconsin recycles about 40 percent of its waste. He says the state’s laws call for beneficial re-use. That means the state does not want to spend more energy recycling something than it took to make it in the first place. Swanson says that makes decisions about what to recycle and what not to recycle a little easier.

“You’d like to be able to recycle everything that’s recyclable, but you have to keep in mind the political and economic realities of being able to actually do something with it once you collect it.”


Swanson says that end result is crucial for recycling programs to survive. He says Wisconsin has budgeted more than 24 million dollars for recycling programs this year. That money goes to pay for trucks, drivers, and people who sort the recyclables, among other things. If a state or city recycles something, it has to be able to sell it. If the costs of recycling are higher than the profits from selling the materials, the city or state loses money on the deal. But not everybody believes more recycling hurts the economy. Will Ferrety is the executive director of the national recycling coalition. He says the more Americans recycle, the better it is for both the environment…. and the economy.

“At its fundamental basis, recycling is helping us eliminate the notion of waste because if we can turn what would otherwise be a discarded product into a useful product, we’re making for a more efficient system.”


Ferrety says states should try and recycle as much as possible. He says it’s preferable to many of the alternatives.

“When you look at that entire system, and compare that to what I would call a one-way system where we extract resources, make a new product, use them up, and simply throw them away in a landfill, hands down, there’s less energy used, there’s fewer air pollutants, there’s fewer water pollutants that result from that recycling system when compared to that one way system.”


Among Great Lakes states, Minnesota and New York have the highest recycling rates…at more than 40 percent each of their total waste. The EPA says other Great Lakes states recycle between 20 and 29 percent. Albany, New York’s Joe Gieblehaus says even though many officials on the state and local level would like to recycle more…. the green of the environment sometimes has to take a back seat to the green in the wallet. He says the market drives decisions about whether or not to recycle something. He says the city can only recycle materials that can then be sold to offset the cost of collecting them in the first place.

“There are so few end uses to close the loop; it’s hard for us at the beginning of the loop to find a market for this material…a sustainable market for this material.”


Gieblehaus says his trucks collect about 13 thousand tons of recycled materials a year. He says that’s just enough to help keep the environment green…. without putting the city into the red. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brodie.