by Jim MacInnis

As is the case in so many sectors of the economy, the business of selling recycled material has an uncertain future as supply outstrips demand.

With the worldwide economic slump, the production of consumer goods has slowed dramatically, so the demand for recycled materials such as plastics and fibre used in packaging has also dropped. The value of paper and cardboard has fallen some 50 percent since the summer of 2008, while high-grade plastics have lost two-thirds of their resale price during the same period. The production slowdown in the auto industry is drastically affecting the prices of steel and aluminum. Companies and institutions that were once paid for their recyclables are now forced to shell out money to have these same goods carted away. Recycling operations, meanwhile, are either selling their products at rock-bottom prices and taking a loss, or stockpiling massive amounts of detritus in anticipation of a market rebound.

Wes Muir, director of communications with Waste Management Inc., notes that both options come with dire consequences. “Warehousing is a short-term solution, as storage only adds to overall costs,” says Muir. “And many recycled materials cannot be stored long-term. … Some fibrous items such as newspapers lose their value in just four to six months.”

More and more recycling depots are sending their stock to landfills, a worst-case scenario for conservationists and recyclers alike. Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, is of two minds when it comes to the problem. “In the end, of course, the attitude has to be to reduce, reuse and recycle. But,” she hastens to add, “it is overconsumption that creates problems in the first place.” So while no one wants to see these recycling programs fail, says St. Godard, less consumption always means less waste.

Recycling operations, though, are now trying to salvage their business.
Louis Anagnostakos, co-founder of the Toronto-based Turtle Island Recycling Company, is astounded by the speed at which things went sour. “We’ve seen significant price declines in everything,” says Anagnostakos. “And it only took a month – this all essentially happened in October.”

Like many of his colleagues, Anagnostakos has had to let go most of his labour force. Turtle Island has halted its sorting operation, and Anagnostakos expects even a partial industry recovery to take at least a year.

However long it takes, the recovery of the recyclables market depends largely on the consumer. “The success of recycling programs depends not only on efficient collection and effective processing,” says Muir, “but also, ultimately, on the willingness of consumers to participate and buy products manufactured from recycled goods.”