Recycling and the financial crisis

While the financial crisis is seeing people tightening their belts and consuming less, which isn’t such a terrible thing in terms of the environment, it’s also having a negative impact on the profits of those involved with recycling.

I visit our local recycling center each month and it’s always interesting learning a bit more regarding how the industry works and the types of bucks involved. It’s a great center – noisy, smelly, but the guys there are great – my last trip there I had 4 workers waiting to unload my measly haul! Even on busy days, they are ultra efficient.

But maybe this level of service might not continue for much longer if commodity prices stay low.

For example, copper became incredibly valuable, achieving up to USD $4 a pound. Copper was so sought before the crunch, I remember our electricity company posting 24 hour guards on a large spool of copper wire when doing some work across the street from us. In Adelaide’s Northern suburbs,  copper cabling was stolen from an electricity substation, live cable that is, causing blackouts in a few suburbs.

The thieves weren’t all that bright – it was at the time that copper was crashing in value. China started winding back development and Wall Street wobbled, with copper bottoming out at $1.50 a pound.

It’s a similar story with some other recyclables. Aluminium (or aluminum as they say in cans were worth a buck a pound back in August, they are now under 80 cents. Steel cans were up to $450 a ton, now down to $50 – $100 a ton.

My aging mini-van is destined for the recyclers at some point. Back in July, the recyclers would have given me AUD $800 for it – now, $200.

In the USA, I’ve read that some recyclers are now refusing to take cardboard and paper – there’s just no cash in it. Some recylclers are having to pay to have paper products carted away. Others are suggesting that this waste should be burned in incinerators to generate electricity.

It’s a shame.

However, the situation does underline the very important point about the 3 R’s of going green – which are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. There’s a reason why Recycle is the last of them – it not only requires a good deal of energy to recycle, it’s also reliant on there being a healthy market for the items.


Recycling by the numbers
Recycling energy savings