The Economic Crisis is an Environmental Crisis: Trash Has Crashed

News at Home

Mr. Zimring is Assistant Professor of Social Science at Roosevelt University. He is the author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005).

Trash has crashed.  So said the New York Times in December, observing the swift decline in value for recycled paperstock, plastics, and metals over the final two months of 2008.  During that time, mixed paper fell from $105 to $25 per ton.  The Times reported that tin, trading earlier in the year at $327 per ton, sold at the end of the year for $5 per ton.  Even materials with more reliable markets, such as steel and aluminum, saw steep declines in their value as autumn advanced into winter. 

Recycling contractors, finding little demand for their collected materials, now face the troubling dilemma of either letting stocks pile up in their yards or carting them off to landfills – the very sort of disposal recycling was supposed to reduce.  How could this happen?

It has happened before.  The dramatic collapse in the secondary metals and paperstock markets resemble the damage done to these markets in the past.  From February to November of 1873, the price of scrap iron fell from $60 to $35 per ton, causing stocks that would have otherwise been sold for use in making ships, rails and industrial machinery to instead rust in scrapyards for months. 

A more ominous precedent for our present situation is the Great Depression. The intense industrialization in the United States in the half century after the Civil War led to the creation of thousands of small businesses that specialized in collecting old iron, copper, lead, cotton, linen, paperstock, and other materials discarded by consumers or industry.  They sold their collections to manufacturers who returned the disposed materials to industrial production.  Scrap materials such as iron from disused rails and machinery cost steelmakers far less than having to mine and transport virgin ore to foundries.  As production techniques allowed the use of more scrap materials, demand grew.  Military needs spurred demand further, and Scientific American reported that by 1917, the annual trade in scrap iron in the United States exceeded one billion dollars. 

The Great Depression ended that growth.  After the crash of 1929, the scrap iron market in the United States was decimated over a four-year period.  In 1929, the Census of Business enumerated thirty-nine brokers with $47,697,000 in annual sales.  For the year 1933, it enumerated eleven brokers with $4,373,000 in annual sales.  Demand was wiped out by the worldwide economic downturn, and once again, scrapyards piled high with unwanted materials.   The market would be slow to recover, not truly thriving until the rest of the economy grew during World War II and the postwar expansion. 

History, then, shows we have seen similar crashes in the value of recyclables reflecting broader economic crises.  It also tells us that the context for the current crash is different than what Americans experienced in 1873 or 1929.  The market for scrap recycling commodities differs in two important respects from the markets in those years.  One, the shift of manufacturing industries outside of the United States’ borders means the value of these commodities now depends on foreign sources of demand.  Over the past two years, Chinese demand for copper sent the value of that commodity so high that American cities were plagued with copper wire and pipe thefts throughout 2007, including traffic signals and agricultural machinery being stripped of wires.  A reporter that year interviewed me for a story inspired by the theft of her own copper downspouts.  (Last autumn, the value of copper plummeted, and with it, associated thefts.  At least one consequence of the economic downturn is not completely negative.)

Two, the associations involved with recycling as an environmental ethic since the 1960s have led to new practices and regulations in the collection and sale of secondary commodities.  The Chicago Resource Center, for example, takes the revenue generated from its drop-off recycling centers and uses it to deliver produce to local social service agencies.   The crash now threatens the delivery of produce and organic baked goods to many of Chicago’s neediest residents.

Beyond that immediate economic consequence, the notion that recycling is a good, even moral activity that reduces solid waste disposal is a mainstream value in our society. Public recycling programs for environmental reasons grew popular as a response to concerns about the proliferation of garbage in American landfills in the last third of the twentieth century.  By the mid-1990s, over one thousand communities had established curbside collections of recyclables.  These programs had successfully diverted materials from landfills; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that between 1970 and 1990, recovery of municipal solid waste as a percentage of total municipal solid waste generated jumped from 6.6 percent to 16.2 percent.  Our current crisis threatens the valuable work recycling programs do to reduce solid waste disposal.  That goal was not on the minds of scrap dealers eighty years ago; their work was to find value in materials others had thrown away.

Today, recycling, and the way we feel about recycling, is different.  The Times story observed one of the consequences of the current downturn was a letter-writing campaign from the students in a second-grade class in South Charleston, West Virginia to their mayor and governor urging that their school’s recycling program not be discontinued.  Their teacher, Rachel Fisk, was quoted in the Times as saying “They were telling them, ‘We really don’t care what you say about the economy. If you don’t recycle, our planet will be dirty.’ ” 

The students’ pleas were heeded, the program survived.  A similar dynamic took place seven years ago when New York City suspended collection of plastics and glass because its contract with Waste Management cost the city too much money.  Public outcry led the city to investigate alternatives, and ultimately the city entered into an agreement with the Hugo Neu Corporation (a scrap dealer operating in New Jersey since 1947) that allowed glass and plastics collections to resume under a more attractive contract.  The reason the city searched for an alternative was the public’s embrace of recycling’s environmental importance.  Since 2004, New Yorkers have been secure in knowing that when they put their glass and plastic out on the curb, along with their metal cans and papers, that the materials will be collected and put to use making new consumer goods.

Our current crisis serves as a reminder, however, that recycling does not simply occur when we place our cans, bottles, and papers on the curb.  The act of placing metals, glass, plastic, cardboard, and newspaper in bins on our curbs is but one step of a process of returning these materials to industrial production in factories ranging from a few miles away, or, as is increasingly the case, an ocean away.  These materials are commodities in a trade as old as the Industrial Revolution, commodities that appreciate and depreciate in value with the fortunes of the industries that demand them.  That was true in 1873, true in 1929, and it remains true as we begin 2009.  The crash in trash is grim news for both the state of the economy and our ability to successfully recycle.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 2/13/2009

Large numbers of newspapers are on the verge of ceasing to distribute paper editions, if they do not cease publication altogether. The internet broke down a lot of local monopolies which were keeping the local newspapers precariously afloat, eg. local publication of national news from the wire services, grocery and discount store advertising, classified advertising, television schedules, etc. A consensus is emerging to the effect that if local newspapers are to survive, they are going to have to get their costs down to very low levels. This tends to include greater use of websites, and reduction in both the size and frequency of paper distribution. There is no point in bombarding the prospective customer, the advertising audience, with so much paper that it almost immediately becomes trash. At this level, the major implication of the economic downturn has been to force advertisers to take a hard look at what their advertising money buys, and what it does not, and to act accordingly. The volume of old newspapers is likely to drop to a tenth or so of former levels. Newspaper recycling was one of the visible successes of domestic recycling. Newspapers, not being contaminated with food residues, could simply be accumulated, and recycled in quantity. As I will develop below, newsprint is about the only nonmetallic curbside recyclable which sells for a premium over its fuel price.


Food packaging is a different case. In the 1920's and 1930's, there were, no doubt, men who went around to the back door and bought old kitchen grease, bones, etc., the kind of stuff which now goes down the disposal. However, compared to the 1930's, there is very little home-processing of food. By the time food is sold to the consumer, the non-edible portions have generally been cut away. This is an inevitable consequence of most women being in the workforce. Food packaging is made as ephemeral as it can be, and still do its job. We had a similar discussion several months ago, dealing with soft-drinks and "bottle bills." My comments about soft-drink bottles apply to food packaging in general. It is mere circumstance that the soft-drink makers reached this level of sophisticated packaging first.


In the first place, the dominant form of food packaging is freezing or refrigeration. Glass is obviously unsuitable for packaging frozen foods, and metal is being driven out from niches such as TV dinner trays because it is not microwave-safe. Most refrigerated foods come in simple transparent plastic wrappers which allows the buyer to visually inspect the condition of the food. Common "refrigerate after opening" condiments such as mustard, catsup, and salad dressing now come in plastic bottles.Certain "status" condiments, which do not differ appreciably in acidity and sugar content, are still in glass bottles, eg. seafood cocktail sauce.

As a packaging material, glass has the obvious disadvantage of being breakable, and is useful only where this is outweighed by its resistance to solvents, or its amenability to being washed (sterilized) at high temperature. Practically speaking, the necessary use of glass packaging seems largely confined to alcoholic beverages, and vinegar (and of course, certain types of flavored vinegar, such as Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce, which one does not have to refrigerate after opening). Even pickles now come in individual plastic pouches which do not require refrigeration. Of course, it is not impossible that at some point, special coatings might be developed, eg. a plastic wine bottle which has an inner layer of glass a thousandth of an inch thick, this layer being highly flexible and bonded to the plastic.

The functional layer of a tin can, the lining, is increasingly likely to be plastic instead of tin. The metal has been reduced in function to a mere structural support, and for that purpose, steel is overkill. Where the properties of metal are required for a lining, a thin layer of aluminum, say a thousandth or a ten-thousandth of an inch thick, can be applied to a plastic or paper substrate. Irradiation of sealed plastic packages has certain advantages over traditional canning methods, ie. it makes it possible to pasteurize foods without overcooking them to anything like the same extent as is required with metal or glass containers. Irradiation is of course not very satisfactory for salad vegetables or fruit, where there is no real substitute for freshness. However, it does work fairly well for meat dishes. As mentioned, tin cans are not compatible with microwave ovens. Prepared meat dishes tend increasingly to come in plastic dishes with sealed plastic covers, enclosed in cardboard wrappers.

This tends to leave only a relatively limited range of foodstuffs for which the tin can, or the glass bottle or jar, is still the packaging method of choice. The domestic kitchen waste stream will tend to consist more and more exclusively of soiled paper and plastic, often combined in single packages, eg. a paper milk carton with a plastic cap and a plastic lining. The highest and best use of that sort of stuff is as feedstock for a synfuel plant. It is possible, without undue difficulty, to use magnets and a flotation-separation process to recover glass and metals from a synfuel plant's input stream. The effect will be to render conventional curbside domestic recycling even more of a farce. The whole point of curbside recycling was never to recover useful materials, but to force the public to participate in an ecological morality play.


Just to keep matters in perspective, the wholesale delivered price of coal, based on the trainload of, say, 10-20,000 tons is something like $30/ton, and coal in small quantities of a few tons goes for as much as a couple of hundred dollars per ton (a typical customer being a tourist railroad with an antique steam locomotive). Paper has about half the heat value of coal, more if it has a wax or plastic coating, so its cash fuel value would be at least $15/ton. Oil is presently at about $40/bbl, which would work out to about $300/ton. Plastics are comparatively easy to recycle into oil. One can simply combine them with small quantities of hydrogen at a sufficiently high temperature and pressure, and that will cause the long chain molecules of plastic to break down into the short chain molecules characteristic of liquid hydrocarbons, eg. diesel oil. As for paper, when it is simply left in the waste stream, it is carried to a landfill, an incinerator or synfuel plant in the normal way. This does not occasion additional trucking costs because everything goes in one big efficient truck. Of course, landfills will eventually be mined, so putting something in a landfill does not amount to throwing it away. You can build a multistage synfuel refinery. In successive stages, more hydrogen is added, and at each stage, the more hydrogen-rich components of the trash become liquid, and separate out. If you separate out paper or plastic from trash, you diminish the total heat value of the raw trash, which requires the burning or reduction of more coal. So, effectively, for paper recycling to be profitable, recycled paper has to command a price of at least $15/ton, and recycled plastic has to command a price of $300/ton.

There are large numbers of recycled material prices which do not achieve this criterion. Old magazines command very low prices, on the order of three dollars per ton, because of the clay coating used to achieve acceptable image quality for photographs. Likewise, waxed cardboard commands a very low price, on the order of five dollars per ton. At this level recycling really means paying to possess the external appearance of recycling.


It is worth reading John Barth's _The Floating Opera House_. Barth is one of the great Southern practitioners of broad farce, in the tradition of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet. In _The Floating Opera House_, Barth's lawyer-hero litigates the will of a millionaire who died insane. It emerges that for years the millionaire has caused his bodily wastes to be packed up in a series of glass jars, which are neatly labeled and stored in the basement of his mansion. In the terms of the man's will, the heirs are required to reverentially preserve these jars, and their contents, on pain of disinheritance. The lawyer is therefore obliged to inquire what has become of these jars... Once one has read _The Floating Opera House_, one has an insight into the mentality of the more extreme kinds of Green activists.

Katy Nally - 2/10/2009

I agree with the 2nd graders. As our national economy reaches new lows, it's scary to think that the plastics I made sure went in the recycling bin, are ending up in landfills. Although, I'm not sure this is entirely the case. I think some waste management companies are holding on to recyclable plastics, until their price goes up again. I hope this is the case. I'm from CT and a bill was recently proposed that would add a refund on plastic water bottles -- anther way to augment funds and to recycle. I posted about this topic on my blog