If nobody wants what's in your blue recycling bin, is it just trash — albeit highly reusable trash — by another name? Is there ever a point where it would make more sense to send recyclable materials to a landfill?
These are the questions municipal governments around the country may be asking themselves privately as global demand for recycled materials dwindles, and as publicly demanded recycling programs become increasingly costly to maintain.
"From last year's peak, prices [for recyclable material] have dropped 50 to 90 per cent," said Mairi Welman of the Recycling Council of British Columbia (RCBC), a group of government and industry members with a stake in recycling.
'In October a tonne of cardboard would fetch $20. In January it went to zero and has barely risen since. I need $50 a tonne, minimum, not to operate at a loss.' —Martin Lapierre, Profix Environnement
B.C.'s municipalities have begun stockpiling recycled materials that can't be sold, waiting it out until markets recover. "There's no contingency plan," she affirmed, underscoring RCBC's commitment toward a "zero-waste society."
For recycling industry middlemen who have to run a business, waiting for demand to return may not be an option.
Martin Lapierre, the owner of Profix Environnement, an industrial collector of corrugated cardboard based in Laval, Quebec, expects prices will stay very low for another five or six months at least. For the industry's sake, he hopes it doesn't drag on any longer. "Anything more than that would be disastrous," he said.
The business was passed down to him by his father, who began collecting used boxes and selling them back to manufacturers for reprocessing in the 1960s, "before there were even recycling plants," he said. By his estimation, the cardboard the firm has recycled over the years has saved at least 750,000 trees.
However, he fears the eco-economy his family has been part of for over four decades is in severe crisis, one that's already worse than any past downturn.
"In October a tonne of cardboard would fetch $20. In January it went to zero and has barely risen since. I need $50 a tonne, minimum, not to operate at a loss," Lapierre said.
He has borrowed $14,000 in the past three months to stay afloat, and now charges clients $25 per pick-up to cover some of his transportation costs.
Quebec has promised $4.8 million in loan guarantees to support its recycling industry, as well as legislation allowing recycling companies and municipalities to renegotiate contracts. While Lapierre welcomes the action, he concedes it's a risky proposition.
"If the economy doesn't pick up, recyclers will never be able to pay it back," he said, adding "there will probably be bankruptcies among smaller recycling operations."
Instead of loans, he argues, the government could set floor prices for recyclable materials. Ultimately, he adds, the government must find a way for Quebec industry to recycle all of the province's post-consumer waste — actually realizing the "closed loop" that the recycling symbol itself represents.
Cursed by popularity
Interestingly, he believes the popularity of municipal recycling programs is partly to blame for the industry's problems.
Materials collected residentially, being of lower quality, tend to be less valuable than industrial waste — especially "commingled" or mixed blue bin recycling, which contains a significant proportion of materials that cannot be recycled due to food contamination.
Due to sheer abundance, residential waste has flooded the recycling market, further driving down prices and increasing the need for subsidies to make up the difference.
"We are committed to keeping the flow of post-consumer goods moving, even at low or no revenue," said Glenda Gies, the executive director of Waste Diversion Ontario, the provincial organization that oversees Ontario's recycling programs.
"If we can't find paying clients, [the government] will pay for materials to be processed. In a worst-case scenario, paper fibres can be composted, while metals and plastics can be stored until markets pick up again," she said.
Feels good, but is it good?
For a minority of experts, the global financial crisis presents a unique opportunity for policy makers and society to reconsider recycling practices altogether.
"Recycling is a religion," said Michael Munger, a self-described ex-recycling zealot and head of the political science department at Duke University in North Carolina.
"We believe that it's always the best thing for the environment and even good for the economy, despite evidence in many cases that it isn't," he said, going as far as calling mandatory recycling a violation of the separation of church and state.
The best way to know whether something is a resource or garbage, Munger says, is whether money can be made selling it.
"If you have to pay someone to take a used item away, it's garbage, and recycling garbage is a waste of resources," he said.
Private businesses and scavengers have always recycled what could be sold for a profit without requiring subsidies or costly government programs, Munger says.
Even material that is relatively easy to recycle is starting to pile up. Toronto is reportedly shipping green bin waste to New York State for lack of composting capacity in Ontario.
Munger argues against the perception that it's more environmentally responsible to send garbage to a recycling or composting plant. Properly maintained modern landfills, with impermeable layers below and an impermeable cap, release virtually no emissions and do not contaminate groundwater.
"Using new wood pulp is less polluting than recycling old paper, particularly in the case of glossy magazine paper. Trees are a renewable resource — vast forests are grown for the sole purpose of papermaking — but many people still contend that recycling will 'save' trees," he said.
Using his logic, soda cans are worth recycling — despite not actually being worth the five-cent refund value — because it's simpler and cheaper than mining and processing aluminum into new cans.
The same is true for scrap metal and corrugated cardboard, while the worth of the rest of the material included in recycling programs is debatable at best, he said.
"It's more expensive and polluting to produce glass from cullet — glass ground down by machines, full of additives, contaminants and impurities — than from raw sand."
Mairi Welman of RCBC counters that while there has never been a great market for coloured glass — some recycling centres will only accept it if paid to do so — bottles can be reused or the glass ground down and recycled into fibreglass.
"But glass is kind of a red herring when talking about recyclables," Welman said. "Even if glass goes into a landfill, it's inert, so it doesn't break down and contaminate the environment."
For Munger, the red herring is recycling a harmless substance for supposedly environmental reasons.
"I throw away green glass. I don't allow the city to waste my tax dollars and time — the one resource we can't make more of — to transport, sort, clean and process glass into cullet that will probably end up in a landfill because no one wants it," he said.
"In their hearts, most people think they are doing the right thing, which is why governments are so interested in recycling — it's a make-work industry that everyone supports."