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Recycling Centers Overflow, but Economics Still Solid

The prices once commanded by paper, metal, and plastic are collapsing along with the stock market. A main factor: China, factories idle, is no longer accepting so much of our old stuff as raw materials. Is recycling headed for the scrap heap?

Well, no. It's a compelling irony to think this new age of thrift might produce new piles of waste, but the economics of recycling still beat the hell out of conventional disposal.

"In Boston, one of the hardest-hit markets, prices are down to $5 a ton [from $50], and the city expects it will soon have to pay to unload its paper. But city officials said that would still be better than paying $80 a ton to put it in a landfill."

Got that? That's a total difference of $85, or a factor of 17.

Communities are rallying in support of their recycling programs, and maybe they can find new ways to finance them. Last month I profiled CEO Ron Gonen of Recyclebank, whose system rewards homeowners for recycling and then collects fees from municipalities based on the improvements in recycling rates. They've added at least a dozen communities to their list since the article was published.

"It should not have much of an impact on our business," Gonen told me today of the dip in prices. "Our revenues (and value prop for municipalities) are tied to the value of diverting waste from the landfills. The complete equation on recycling includes the fact that even if you get paid $0 per ton for recyclables, you would need to pay an expensive disposal fee at the landfill. An additional externality is that you will need to drive (in a big fuel guzzling truck) that ton much farther (sometimes across state lines) to find landfill space, whereas the recycling facility is usually operated locally."


The New York Times

"Back at Junk Value, Recyclables Are Piling Up"