Recycling industry takes an economic hit

Last Saturday, with its clear skies and unseasonably warm weather, was a perfect day for chores in and out of doors, and for a trip to the transfer station with bundles of recyclable materials.

Anyone making that trip drove to the rear of the transfer station yard and found bins had been roped off in the back corner, handwritten signs announcing “Not accepting glass/tin/steel at this time.”

A sign not only seen at other recycling centers but also a sign of how far-reaching the recession is, as the economy continues its downward spiral, affecting not just the price of recycled materials but also the cost of recycling.

After years of muscular growth in the wake of growing environmental consciousness, the recycling market has found itself in the same free-fall that has characterized the global economic meltdown. With decreasing consumer demand for autos, appliances and new homes, steel and pulp mills’ demand for scrap, paper and other recyclables has dropped precipitously.

Demand for some recyclables tracks closely with markets for new products, tying the scrap market closely to global economic conditions. Recycled cardboard that would normally be used to fabricate containers for new products remains stockpiled as consumer demand continues to plummet. Likewise scrap metal, used in making auto parts, remains piled high in warehouses, unsold and unwanted.

Scrap metal that sold for $525 a gross ton back in September slumped in price to about $100 recently. Cardboard was going for $135 a ton but now fetches only $35 a ton. Plastic bottles have fallen from 25 cents to 2 cents a pound and the price for aluminum cans has dropped by nearly half, to about 40 cents a pound.

The situation with the Archuleta County transfer station can be tied directly to the economy, but can be also linked to the county’s dependence on the Durango recycling center. According to Chris Tanner, Archuleta County director of public works, “Our driver had called and Durango said they couldn’t accept the glass or tin from us. They were accepting those items from customers but not in large quantities.”

Tanner attributed the backlog of steel and tin to the economy but said, “Glass is a different story. Durango keeps it in town and pulverizes it. Last week they were having problems with their machine and they weren’t accepting our glass while it was under repair.”

Tanner’s statement was confirmed by Dale Cogswell, Solid Waste manager for the Durango recycling center — with conditions. “We had so much, we couldn’t process it,” Cogswell said. “Our storage for items coming in, especially tin and plastic, is very limited.”

However, when asked if there was any time during the past week that Durango would have accepted Archuleta County glass and tin, Cogswell said, “Definitely. As long as they tell me in advance, we could get it in here. Our problem right now is just getting the space to store it while it’s waiting to be processed.”

Nancy Andrews, recycling coordinator for La Plata County, reiterated the need for the Archuleta County transfer station to call ahead before it sends materials.

“Archuleta County needs to call ahead. We’ll take those materials but it needs to be coordinated. We get overloaded if, say, Ignacio, Bayfield and Pagosa Springs all bring their materials in on the same day; we just can’t accommodate everyone at the same time.”

Andrews denied that the Durango recycling center is turning away any of the materials traditionally received from the Archuleta County transfer station and said, “We are taking them and will continue to take them.”

Nonetheless, Andrews reported a bleak outlook regarding the immediate future of recycling, saying, “We know that there will be some programs that will go under due to the drop in prices across the board, on all commodities.”

According to Andrews, several recycling centers in Colorado are in danger of being forced to close as municipalities find it cheaper to send their recycling to a landfill rather than bundling the commodities and shipping that material to a broker.

Andrews also confirmed that recycled tin and steel have been affected the most by the economic downturn, that the cost of shipping can be prohibitive — a problem felt by recycling concerns throughout the country. An article in the Dec. 7 New York Times reported that recycled steel, destined for China, has been left sitting on shipping docks because the cost of transporting the material would not be offset by the profits made from their sale.

Most U.S. recycled goods are sold in Asia, primarily China, where the materials are used in the manufacture of new products that find their way back to America.

The steel situation has been mirrored by the Durango recycling facility. “We were considering just sending our steel to the landfill,” Andrew said, “It would have cost more to transport it than what we would have gotten in return for it. Fortunately, we found someone to give it to.”

Although the Durango recycling facility is in no danger of closing, according to Andrews, smaller towns across Colorado and the U.S. are finding the cost of operating and maintaining their facilities prohibitive, in the face of diminished commodity prices. Until the economy rebounds, some municipalities may be forced to dump recyclables into local landfills — as well as close recycling facilities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site, Americans generated about 254 million tons of trash, last year, and recycled about 150 million tons of material.

jim@pagosasun.com