Update: The New York Times featured an excellent article on the current situation with recycling in North America, profiling a number of recycling companies…

A sign at the office of North Shore Recycled Fibers tells clients of a new policy: instead of paying for cardboard, the company will charge a penny a pound to accept it.

Source: No Market for Rubbish – The New York Times > Business > Slide Show > Slide 8 of 9

“Either it goes to landfill or it begins to cost us money,” Ms. Sternberg said.

Source: Back at Junk Value, Recyclables Are Piling Up – NYTimes.com

Cardboard Boxes

The original UrbanWorkbench article published on December 7th began here…

A few weeks ago, I featured a link to an article from the UK about the financial crisis with recycling, and now it appears that my supposition that the same issues were being faced in Canada have been realized with this article from Montreal, and another from the Globe and Mail, (which I would link to if they removed their paid subscriber only policy – btw -do they not realize that the ability to link and blog about things might actually help rather than hinder their bottom line?) Any way, here is the article from Montreal…

Financial crisis hits recycling industry

“We’ve never seen a crisis like this before – there have been fluctuations, but nothing like this,” said Pierre Lemoine, a spokesman for TIRU, the sorting company that receives the majority of recycled materials from the Island of Montreal’s recycling-collection programs.”At the end of October, it was business as usual. Now the market for papers, plastic, metals, and glass is practically non-existent.”

[ad#250-left]I’ve had discussions about this with many people around the Kootenays including local waste management employees, regular recyclers, and elected officials, and I’d have to say that the majority of out-of-industry response on this issue is shock and disbelief. Shock that something as sacred as recycling may not be economically viable, and disbelief that I might suggest that putting this material into a landfill just might be the best short term option.

This is predominantly because as a consumer culture this is a task that has been effectively marketed as a task at the household or business level, and the badge of “recycler” is proudly worn by many who want to participate in efforts to clean up the world – even if it is as innocuous as deciding to not place a jar in the bin, but washing it and storing it for recycling.

But with the market almost non-existent, and the cost of transporting the material to be processed likely to increase, the efforts of all sectors will have to shift to the previous two R’s in the catchy phase:

“Reduce, Reuse and Recycle”

These two R’s actually have much greater significance in the future economy than the idea that we can continue consuming as much as we are now, as long as we recycle the box that it came in.

Recycling is the last “R” for a reason.

I’m not saying the future will (or should be) be devoid of recycling – rather the current mega-corporation model of recycling is probably not as sustainable as the companies that have cashed in on this the latest fad think it is. Communities need to focus on replacing many of the heavily packaged products that are commonly bought and sold at supermarkets with locally produced alternatives. Bulk grains instead of breakfast cereals, locally raised meat rather than prepacked frozen products. Locally baked goods, rather than breads and snacks suspended in a state of “freshness” by preservatives and airtight packaging. Local milk and juices in reusable containers rather than packaged drinks in recyclable containers.

I can hear the cries of those accustomed to their urban or suburban lifestyle decrying this as an unnecessary inconvenience. I ask those who think the local agriculture is a waste of time to spend a moment considering where their next meal has come from, and how much oil or other fossil feul was required to grow, package, transport, sell and cook it – then look up Peak Oil and tell me how all of the heavily fueled activities can continue into the future with no viable replacement fuel or technology on hand or in research.

All of this makes commercial recycling seem like a side business and a luxury we cannot afford to be solely focused on at the expense of the other “R’s”. What are your thoughts?

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.