4:17 minutes (2.06 MB)
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Recycling programs are designed to divert materials out of the waste stream. In recent years there's been money to be made from recycling. But suddenly that equation has changed.
At the transfer station in Branford Connecticut residents drop off all kinds of stuff that’s recycled.
"Cans plastic paper cardboard doors. Anything that we can."
Sherry Torello is so dedicated to recycling she even chose a carpet for her home because it was made from recycled bottles. She wants things to be reused.
"The whole point of doing it is you want to help the environment you want to help the earth it seems pointless if it’s not going to where you think it’s gonna go."
Recycled materials typically move from cities and towns or redemption centers to companies that sell them to manufacturers.They turn them into everything from packaging to fabric. Right now consumers aren’t buying as many goods so factories don’t need as many raw materials.
Towns, like Branford, will continue to recycle no matter what. So far this year Branford has earned about $93,000 from selling recyclables. But Peg Hall, the town’s solid waste manager, says soon Branford may have to pay to move certain items.
"If I can continue to move it for less than it costs us to get rid of it if it were garbage than the town of Branford has still saved money."
In the past much of the paper from Branford has been recycled in China to make packaging and cardboard boxes. But Chinese mills need less paper.
"In June July and August we were probably buying 400 to 500 thousand tons in a month and that’s probably been cut back by 50%."
Scott Taylor works for American Chung Nam, the largest exporter of recycled paper in the world. It buys paper by the ton for a paper mill in China. Taylor says prices collapsed in October.
"In the summer months you could get $70, $80, $90 for mixed paper and we saw that drop into -5, -10 range."
"Kleenex boxes. Here I’m pulling an old Kleenex box right out of the pile, pizza boxes, kitty litter boxes"
Tim DeVivo and his brother Tom are the third generation in their family to run Willimantic Waste Paper in Willimantic Connecticut. Despite dropping prices workers are still sorting though truckloads of paper, bottles and cans that keep arriving from cities and towns.
"We find toasters we find little ovens its amazing the amount of stuff we find in it."
It used to be well worth it to sort through this stuff. This summer PET plastic -that’s what water and soda bottles are made from -sold for $300 a ton. Now it’s down to $20. Tin is way down as well. DeVivo points to a mountain of paper gathering dust. Worth $56,000 a few months ago.
"I can’t sell that for the life of me . I have to pay a paper mill to take it away."
Devivo says his company is losing millions in revenues and just laid off 15 of its 250 employees. Other recyclers are also suffering.
Mike Schedler of NAPCOR, a PET plastic trade association says municipally-run recycling programs aren’t based on market demand. Their goal is to divert waste.
"Where that material goes after we collect it has not been really thought out and that’s the heart of the problem."
Most states don’t require manufacturers to use recycled materials.
Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council says he’s concerned the recycling infrastructure won’t survive without government help.
"If government is going to invest in helping industries recover through this recession it should prioritize those investments into ecologically-healing industries like the recycling industry."
Tim DeVivo, who sells to paper mills in the U-S and Canada, doesn’t want government subsidies. But he acknowledges most manufacturers won’t choose recycled materials just because that’s better for the planet.
"If a mill finds its easier to chop down a tree they’ll chop it down. They don’t care it’s all about numbers."
Even though the numbers are down DeVivo and others in the industry want people to keep recycling. That way when the economy rebounds the system of recycling will still be intact.