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[GreenYes] are government subsidies going to save recycling?

I was surprised to see this message on a clean tech blog.  It clearly reflects to me the lack of understanding of recycling and environmental issues even among the clean tech community.  My response is below it.  The link to the blog is  Not sure if you need to be registered to use it. But do add your voice if you can!

Blog Post:
Are government subsidies going to save recycling?
December 9, 2008 - Casual musings by Emma Ritch, Cleantech Group

The value of materials recovered in the recycling process is plummeting alongside oil and other commodities. 

Since favorable economics are credited with driving the recycling push of recent years (as opposed to eco-conscious consumers), the future of recycling is now in question.

The New York Times reports that the price of tin is down from $327 a ton earlier this year to about $5. Mixed paper is down from $100 a ton to $20 to $25. Glass is an exception, with prices remaining steady.

Prices are dropping because there's no longer a demand for recycled materials as the largest customer, China, has pulled back. Some collectors are stockpiling the recyclables until prices go back up, while others are refusing to accept more plastic and paper. Some are even beginning to charge to accept materials that they previously paid to obtain.

A new report last week showed that recycling paper and plastic consumes more energy and resources than it saves (see Report calls recycling a waste of energy). Metals were considered an exception to the findings, which suggested trash was better served as a fuel source for waste-to-energy plants.

So what does this mean for the businesses that have popped up to capitalize on the value of recyclables? It's unclear.

Philadelphia-based RecycleBank, for example, gets paid by municipalities to divert trash from a landfill to a recycling center.

If there's no value left in recyclables, will the industry have to resort to government subsidies to survive?

My response:

We forget that throwing garbage away is a 100% subsidy, we don't ask for garbage systems to pay for themselves, yet some people seem to think that recycling has to stand on its own two feet, whatever that means.

There are many reports showing that materials reuse is benefits the environment. Stop Trashing the Climate is only one of them:

Recyclables are probably the only commodity that can still be used even with a negative price, meaning paying someone to take them is still cheaper than throwing them in the dump. So these commodities can still move in a slow market, as long as there is a use for them. 

But despite all the clear environmental and economic reasons to recycle, let's ask these questions: who among us wants to live near a landfill, garbage incineration plant, strip mine or other extraction industry? If the externalities of virgin materials extraction and waste disposal were internalized- health impacts of air and water pollution, long term monitoring and clean up of landfills, etc- recycling would make even more sense economically.  We've seen this over and over with many more environmental solutions: if the costs of pollution were internalized, you bet clean tech would be farther along. 

The drop in primary, as well as secondary, commodity prices means that we aren't buying as much stuff.  Hopefully it means we won't be mining or throwing away as much stuff, either. 

Amy Perlmutter
Perlmutter Associates
23 Avon Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Strategic planning, partnership building, communications, and program design for a sustainable future

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