Recyclers in California and Hawaii, among other places, might be in for a surprise when they take their cans, bottles and paper to be recycled. A January 2016 news release on KHON2 announced that more than 20 Hawaiian centers had closed. A March 2016 article from Environmental News stated that more than 100 Californian centers have closed.
Why the center closures? Very simple. The prices on commodities such as ferrous metals (tin cans) and aluminum (soda cans) have dropped. The falling metal prices – metal being a staple of the recycling industry – means that the centers do not have the funds to meet their overhead.
You might ask, “What kind of overhead can a recycling plant have?” That is a very good question – and one that has some direct and very easy answers.
Here is an observation from a dedicated recycler, who regularly takes her recycling to Big Dog Recycling in Half-Way, Missouri:
“It was early on a Wednesday morning, but the crew was already at work loading cans into the baler. A load of paper was set up and ready to go into another baler. A tangle of assorted items that were being reduced to their parts so they could be recycled.
One of the workers stopped loading the baler to accept my weekly deposit of pet food cans. He quickly weighed them and tossed the bag into a bin filled with similar contents. He gave me the ticket to fill out with my name and address, just in case someone wanted to know where I got those cans. The items I drop off are legally accounted for, but our local area has had our share of people stealing plumbing and copper wiring from empty houses and construction sites.
I took my ticket over to the office shack and got my $2.50 for the cans, and paused for a moment to admire the shining bales of aluminum cans winking in the sun before I drove on to work.”
Big Dog is a small recycling center that focuses on metal, plastic and paper. They do not take glass. They are a pretty bare-bones operation. Their requirements include electricity for the lights in the main building and the office, gas for the Bobcat used for loading the trucks, and power for the balers. There are probably other costs in addition to the salaries paid the workers, but these are needs readily understood by the casual observer.
Larger recycling plants might have digesters for food waste, automated sorters or a belt that has items that are manually sorted. They could even include smelters or renderers. These are things that cost money to operate – and that doesn’t even address transportation, taxes, licensing and other incidental costs. These things are paid for by selling the recycled materials or they are paid for through tax dollars.
When the price drops for the materials from the items they are collecting or when they have to pay drop-off fees for things such as digital waste products, their profit margin narrows. Supply and demand works in the recycling industry, just as it does in any other business. When the profit margin becomes too narrow, or when the cost exceeds what taxpayers are willing to cover, then recycling centers are no longer able to remain open.
It is difficult to say what the answer might be to be able to keep recycling centers open. It is certain that they do fill a vital need – one that will keep us from having to mine our landfills toward the end of this century for essential materials. Recycling, after all, goes way beyond a couple of pounds of pet food cans or someone’s table scraps. It encompasses the waste from construction sites, from manufacturing, from agribusiness operations and from the food industry – including restaurants. And when the cost of recycling exceeds the profits, then it is certain that the recycling centers will close.
So where does that leave the recycling consumer? Well, there is still the old adage, “Use it up, wear it out – make it do, or do without.” But no matter how frugal you might be, there still comes that moment when the rag rug you made from old t-shirts strips reaches the penultimate end of its life and the lawn-mower you’ve been nursing back to health each spring finally gasps its last and will cut no more. And that doesn’t begin to address items such as toothpaste tubes, used canning lids, or steel belted tires that have gone forever flat.
Somewhere, there must be an answer. It just remains to be found.