Demand dwindles for recycled materials

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Sunday, February 1, 2009
— Wendy Eidman refers to herself as a committed, yet imperfect environmentalist.

She paid close attention to the Christmas gifts she bought and in some cases gave services as presents. Her Christmas tree was a decorated umbrella plant.

For the sake of the environment, she’s trying to do the right things.

But the Milton woman is concerned that a critical component of the reduce-reuse-recycle movement is being threatened.

The global market for recyclables such as paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum and plastic has tanked, and worldwide markets for the commodities have dried up.

There’s a glut of recycled material, and Eidman can’t fathom the thought of barges floating aimlessly at sea with no one to buy the materials.

“As recyclers, we think we’re doing something good for the environment by putting our stuff on the curb to be whisked away to a recycling center,” she said. “That stuff is being taken away, but it’s not being reused right now.”

John Whitcomb, operations director for the city of Janesville, said homeowners and businesses should continue to recycle, even though worldwide markets for the materials are tight.

“These are commodities, and prices fluctuate,” he said. “When prices go down, companies have a tendency to hang on to the stuff.”

Lower prices for paper, plastic, aluminum and glass are showing up in the city’s balance sheets.

The city has a contract with Waste Management to process and market recyclables that city crews haul to the Janesville Recycling Center on Black Bridge Road.

Several years ago, Waste Management and The Peltz Group, which operates the Janesville facility, formed the Recycle America Alliance to optimize capacity and improve the profitability of the recycling business. Peltz is the country’s largest privately held recycler.

The contract charges the city a set tonnage fee for sorting and marketing the materials. When commodity prices are higher than the fee, the city gets a refund. When they’re lower, the city pays the difference.

Last year, the city collected nearly $180,000 from its recycling program, which Whitcomb said was one the higher end of annual totals.

Now, however, the city is approaching the point where it will have to pay more to get rid of its recyclables.

“The revenues have certainly been sliding,” Whitcomb said.

Given the cyclical nature of commodity prices, that’s not a new phenomenon. When the city started its curbside recycling program in 1994, it routinely paid to dispose of its recyclables as markets for the materials took shape.

“It’s come full circle,” Whitcomb said. “We’ve had some banner years of late, but now it’s going the other way. We’ve had problems in the market before, and at some point it will rebound.”

Whitcomb said the city is fortunate that its recycling budget is part of a much larger sanitation budget. In the near future, lost recycling revenues could be absorbed by other parts of the sanitation budget.

With uncertainty in the markets for recycled materials, Eidman encourages people to continue their recycling. But she said the emphasis might need to shift more to the reduce-and-reuse philosophy.

“People aren’t always aware that when they need more shampoo, there are places they can go to refill the bottle instead of buying a new one and throwing the old one out,” she said. “When I need soap, I go to Basics and cut off a piece. When I go to the farmers market, I take plastic bags with me.

“I’ve become ultra-conscious of every new purchase I make and its packaging. We are in an environmental crisis, and people just need to become more aware and disciplined.”

Last updated: 9:45 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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