Presto! Turning what was a commodity into a waste

Feb 24, 2009 | 05:41 AM |

Recyclers play a unique role in the economy, flanked by sellers of used goods on one side and by trash collectors on the other. All three deal with products no longer wanted by businesses and households. The difference is whether an item can be resold for its original function, as a raw material, or not at all. The economic tailspin that began in late 2008 threatens to redraw some of those boundaries.

Cities with market-sensitive contracts for curbside recyclables discovered this early. Their commodity mixtures no longer had net-positive value when set against the cost of handing and transportation, so instead of enjoying a share of a contractor's sales revenue they were paying for removal. Last summer, the program in Madison, Wis., was getting $106,000 a month from its recycling contractor; in November, the same vendor billed the city for $41,249.

If the dismal economic environment persists for several years, towns and counties may rethink how much curbside recycling they are prepared to support. New York City, for example, dropped glass and plastics recycling from 2002 to 2005 to save money.

In recent months, with dealer buying prices no longer sufficient to justify the expense and effort of gathering obsolete scrap, the number of peddler trucks bringing over-the-scale offerings to scrapyards has shrunk drastically.....

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