A Question of Value

This March, we will celebrate the 20the anniversary of the voyage of the garbage barge. The misbegotten Caribbean cruise of 3,000 tons of New York's finest garbage was a media sensation. In its wake, most states passed laws requiring some kind of recycling by local governments.

Those laws have been highly successful in increasing the supply of recyclables generated by households and businesses. Unfortunately, they failed to increase the value of those recyclables. The problem is that each home and most businesses generate too few recyclables to interest an end market. Curbside programs consolidate these materials through collection. Materials recovery facilities separate and process them for end markets. But even with a large, clean supply, the value of these recyclables usually doesn't offset their collection and processing costs.

The highest recycling rates and values go to materials that are the cleanest and easiest to collect. Industrial recyclables — whether they are home or industrial scrap — meet both criteria. Home scrap, such as the scrap produced by a steel mill, is the most commonly recycled waste product. This material can be remelted on site, without processing and transportation costs. These advantages put it at the top of the “value tree.”

Industrial scrap, or the residue created when products are made, is the next most recycled waste product. An example is the boxboard cuttings left over when boxes are made out of paperboard. Industrial scrap is relatively clean, but material from several plants must often be consolidated into larger loads before it is ready for transport to an end market. The scrap industry has done an excellent job recycling this material.

As we move down the value tree, quantity and quality become more important in determining the value of recyclables. Cardboard box recycling got a jump-start in the early 1970s when grocery stores realized that they could sell the empty boxes they had been paying haulers to take away for disposal. These businesses produced consistently large supplies of boxes that could be sold as long as markets needed them.

Old newspapers often were collected by paper drives, usually as a charity fundraiser. The first curbside programs also took newspapers because they were easy to collect and keep clean. In either case, the newspapers from individual households would be consolidated and sold if market demand existed. Of course, a local newspaper's unsold copies, known as overissue news, found markets first.

Container deposits created value by requiring consumers to pay a fee, usually a nickel, which they would get back when the empty container was returned for the deposit. Again, small, clean, individual supplies of a recyclable material were consolidated and sold.

As I noted above, most curbside residential and commercial recyclables have little individual value before collection and processing. Fortunately, most end markets for these recyclables are strong.

Electronic products pose a daunting problem because their collection and processing costs far outweigh their value. As a result, we create value through advance recycling fees or manufacturer takeback programs, both of which are paid for by the consumer.

Our ability to collect and process recyclables has increased dramatically in the last two decades. If we can do as well on the value side in the next two decades, the barge will not have sailed in vain.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: [email protected].

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.