For a long time, the system worked pretty well. U.S. consumers did what we do best--consume. The resulting refuse--paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, and more--would be shipped to China to be turned into new products and packaging for the U.S. market, and the whole cycle would begin again.
But then the bottom dropped out of both the economy and the price of oil. As production plummeted in the developing world, so did the demand for materials. Low oil prices meant that recycled plastic lost its price advantage over virgin plastic.
One of the chief selling points of recycled commodities--their energy cost savings--disappeared. "The market has pretty much tanked," says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association.
Last November, prices for recyclable commodities dropped, sometimes by more than 80 percent. Mixed paper, which sold for $105 a ton in October, was selling for $20 a ton by December. The price for newspaper, which had commanded $200 a ton, plunged 90 percent, and cardboard fell by two-thirds. Plastic you can't even give away. Unable to find buyers for low-value materials, recyclers are either warehousing them or, ironically, sending them to the landfill. "You can't pay for storage forever," Miller says. "And some materials--paper and plastics--you have to keep out of direct sunlight. Sooner or later you're going to run into fire code issues. It's a matter of space."
The problem is compounded by the fact that in the 11 states where consumers pay a deposit on beverage bottles and cans, returns are up as much as 10 percent thanks to an economy that has people scrounging under sofa cushions for grocery money. And while recycling rates in the United States are lower than they could be--half the nation still has no curbside pickup--we are the world's largest paper recycler, collecting 43.2 million metric tons per year.
Even though the glut of recyclables is bad news in the short term, recycling advocates try to see it as an opportunity. At present the United States relies on foreign markets to purchase and re-cycle its garbage. What would happen if we reused our refuse here at home as part of that new green economy we keep hearing about?
"It's a huge opportunity domestically," says Conrad MacKerron, who's a program director at the corporate-responsibility nonprofit As You Sow. "There's been a lot of whining [from U.S. manufacturers] that they're being outbid by countries that until recently had a real thirst for our paper, plastic, and metals. Why not go in now and lock in better rates?"
As You Sow recently evaluated the recycling habits of the nation's major beverage companies. Most are far better at producing garbage than they are at reusing it. Of the 200 billion beverage containers sold in the United States each year, less than one-third are recycled. And while most aluminum cans contain 40 percent recycled material, the majority of plastic PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles are constructed entirely from virgin resin. Coca-Cola leads the beverage industry with 65 percent recycled content in its aluminum cans, and Pepsi wins the eco-bottle pageant by using 10 percent recycled PET.
Coca-Cola is now building a new PET-bottle recycling fact ory in South Carolina and has pledged to recover 50 percent of its plastic bottles and cans by 2015. Even so, the U.S. market for recyclables continues to shrink. A sixth of our egg cartons, shopping lists, and newspapers still goes to China, but that number is unlikely to increase anytime soon. Nor can U.S. paper mills take up the slack, given that they're closing at a furious rate. "I'd love to see more use of recycled materials in this country," Miller says. "But the reality is, we don't have the same manufacturing sector that we used to." --D.S.