As Obama tries to sell a carbon-trading plan, another green initiative needs his help: recycling. How cheap commodities and cheap landfill space are undermining one of cornerstones of environmental policy.
The economic recession, with its associated decline in global commodity prices, has created an unexpected byproduct: Demand for recyclables has all but dried up. As a result, communities across America are reevaluating whether they can justify continuing their recycling programs.
There is no question that recycling is good for the environment. Even though the process itself generates a large carbon footprint, recent studies show that it almost always beats landfilling or incineration. Making a soda can out of recycled aluminum, for example, can reduce net energy consumption by as much as 95%.
But if recycling makes environmental sense, why isn’t it making economic sense?
The recession, it seems, is laying bare the myth that recycling has something to do with saving the environment. In fact, it’s about money. When commodity prices rise, waste companies can sell recyclables to faraway markets and turn a profit. When commodity prices fall, the cost of recycling looks ominous compared with the best alternative, landfilling. Commodities are priced fluidly, rapidly integrating the latest market supply and demand signals. Landfilling costs, known as “tipping fees,” have barely risen over the past decade, despite the growing threat of climate change. “What we need are incentives and disincentives to encourage better behavior,” says Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Activities that wreck the environment should cost more money.”