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In an interesting column in Tuesday’s Times-Standard, “Recycling market woes”, Dave Stancliff points out that the global economy, drop-off in consumer spending, and reduced demand for raw materials, as well as the increasing availability of recycling programs and therefore of the supply, the prices for recycled materials have also dropped dramatically.

Even on the best of days, recycling is always extremely sensitive to the prices for bulk materials. In the last few years, the prices were best for metals and for white paper, but quite marginal for cardboard and mixed paper, for example. The local bulk prices plus transportation costs mean that for a given community, especially outside big urban centers, certain materials are not “worth” recycling.

But this article attracted my attention to the issue — I had not yet considered what effect the current economic turmoil would have on this market. I poked around Google News and found a slew of articles on the topic.

I suspect that for metals the market will pick up again before too long, for a while at least, because world-wide metal prices — especially ferrous metals — have been driven extremely high by the Iraq war. Mining areas that were considered played out or too expensive to mine have been reopened and more are being targeted by mining companies, making readily available recyclable metals quite attractive.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the problem is significant for the recycling and waste management industry, state and federal environmental agencies, and for cities that have recycling targets to meet.

Naturally, if the cost of end disposal was included as the “cost of doing business” for various industries (as they increasingly are in Europe), the picture would change quite a bit. Not only would companies have an incentive to reduce packaging and extend the service life of their products, but local governments and taxpayers would not be on the hook to pay for such a large share of the final disposal costs.

Moreover, by making recyclables a commodity subject to the same market fluctuations and supply-and-demand factors as other sources for new materials, the current system forces all producers of recycled materials — cities, counties, rural service districts, etc. — to compete against each other and edge one another out of the running.

Logically, recycled materials should be given the preference (as long as they meet minimum quality requirements for a given use) and receive a certain cost break because every bit of material we reuse — plastic, glass, metal, paper — is another bit we don’t have to extract from natural resources. We save for later, avoid some disposal costs, and prevent some environmental impacts linked to resource extraction.

What we need is a revision of our way of costing everything.

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Reusable cloth bagLike in many other cities, plastic bags will be banned from Seattle grocery stores in the not too distant future. In addition, the City is considering whether to impose a ban or fee on a number of non-reusable container types as well. Having worked on landfills for many years and seen the mess of flying plastic bags all over the place — one of the experiences that convinced me over a decade ago to go back to college, get a graduate degree and move from civil to environmental engineering — I really sympathize with efforts to reduce the quantity of plastics we use and waste.

My husband and I have been using cloth tote bags for a decade. I always have a couple of bags that fold into very tight little pocket-size pouches in by backpack or purse. Reusable cloth bags are particularly useful when we walk to the store rather than drive, because they are sturdier and we don’t risk a spill along the way.

Yet, I make sure to get a certain number of plastic grocery bags every week. Why? Because we use them to line our small waste baskets in the bathroom and office, as well as clean the cats’ litter boxes. Incidentally, it’s also a city ordinance that animal waste has to be double-bagged for disposal into the trash; in other words, you can’t just empty the litter box into your garbage can, the contents have to be bagged separately and placed inside the other bag.

So this phasing out of plastic carry bags just means I’ll have to buy boxes of plastic bags, now, and so will anyone with pets. Another example, at the small and individual level, of the fact that there are no magic universal solutions to complex problems, only toolboxes and people willing to work on the issue.

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