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Recycling's Shrinking Market

Most of us want to recycle, and many of us pay a monthly fee to do so, supporting the notion that there is a positive relationship between a society's relative wealth and its level of concern about environmental issues. In other words, wealthier people (and societies) can afford to think about environmental sustainability. Poor people (and societies)? Not so much. This fact is lost on many people. Another fact that is lost on many people is that recycling is an industry like any other, with the same supply and demand issues affecting price and profits.

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Unfortunately, it looks like the recycling industry in the U.S. might be grinding to a halt, as the prices for scrap paper and plastic have collapsed. And too much of what is recycled is contaminated by food and liquid, which means that it is harder to sort and far more expensive than it should be. China, probably in response to the increased tariffs levied by the U.S., has lowered its contaminant limit from 20% to .5%, which means that exports have virtually come to a halt. 

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Cities have raised rates for recycling services, and an increasing amount of recycled material is diverted to the landfill in this shrinking market for recycled materials. Of course, this could all be a temporary state of affairs although some observers think that recycling has changed for good; but for now, the situation in the industry is rather grim indeed.

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