So, it has come to this: Even garbage is worthless. That remark was made by a Beijing businessman who buys and sells recyclables. After decades of delusions about recycling being the simple answer to our solid waste problem, the markets for the valuable commodities rescued from trash cans have evaporated like our 401(k)s.
It's too easy to blame the Chinese — after all, because they bought more than half our paper exports for decades, some of us began to believe that money grows on trees. Now, communities that balanced some of their recycling programs' costs with income from selling recyclables are being rudely reminded that they are in a business where their products' prices can fluctuate, sometimes wildly.
When it comes to our garbage habit, the Chinese are our enablers. Their hordes of cheap products made us feel rich. The low prices magnified our buying power, and like magic, our dollars appeared to be growing. Who can turn down a $30 DVD player? If you're standing in a landfill, you can see how many would rather buy a new one instead of fixing an old one.
Over time, our waste relationship with the Chinese became symbiotic. They made products we could afford — which softened the blow from years of stagnant wages — and, in return, we flooded them with dollars, which fueled their economy to unprecedented heights. Eventually, we performed a magic trick of our own by turning their goods into garbage, some of which they bought back from us, fueling our recycling programs. They were happy. We were happy (trade deficit aside), and few questioned much, that is until our economy — and the world's — became unglued.
The recycling market is an insignificant part of our economic engine, but its story is a microcosm of the plague that has infected the larger body politic. Our financial houses were built out of a deck of cards full of jokers that would have made Houdini blush. We allowed ourselves to be convinced that we were the wizards, the dollars we invested were multiplying, and the money loaned to us for houses or credit card purchases confirmed our wise decisions. In the meantime, the illusion of wealth is over, and we have to live with the reality we created. And, at least for a while, garbage will remain garbage.