Monday, December 8, 2008


The Times reports that prices on recycled raw materials have plummeted (in line with every other kind of raw material), thus endangering recycling programs all around the country. With drooping consumer demand across the board, suppliers of raw goods cannot find buyers. This is pushing down prices, driving up inventories, and in the case of some municipal-run programs, governments are throwing up their hands and quitting.

This is bad news for the world at large (and especially the maldives), but it doesn't need to be. Last night I met a guy who works for a hedge fund here in Hong Kong, and asked him rather abruptly if his fund had managed to stay true to its original identity--a fund that could make money in good or bad markets. He was a shy fellow, and admitted they were up 3-4% for the year (beating most developed economies, I should point out), but was quick to say that "it wasn't like it had been in the past."

This is the same piss-poor attitude that will destroy an excellent ecological opportunity. When the market drops, you buy. When the cost of environmentally beneficial commodities drops, you legislate. Now is the time to take legislative advantage of record-low prices for recycled materials.

The first and easiest way to do this would be to quickly enact mandates on post-consumer content in packaging. This can be sold as a protectionist measure for any number of causes, but in reality it is a long-overdue consideration of where the vast majority of waste comes from. Furthermore, a well executed framework could provide the basic structure for far more sweeping environmental provisions.

Another, almost obvious act does not even require legislation: sort this out. Presently, due to food-contamination concerns, the FDA restricts the use of post-consumer materials in food packaging. To gain approval, each individual use by an individual company requires a submission and review process. While this may be no big deal for Coca-Cola, virgin materials are cheaper for whoever produces the styrofoam trays that the halal-lunch cart sells (or the thai place, or Wong's Wok on fourth and A...)

A quick way to reduce the amount of virgin material used in plastics would be a comprehensive petroleum tax, rather than a gas tax. Presently the money state and federal governments charge on your gas goes to support public transportation infrastructure. But if you're using that petroleum to make coke bottles, it flows like...well, oil. Re-using the bottle would look a lot more attractive if all of a sudden coke was paying another fifteen cents to the gallon on virgin materials.

Crack down on strip mining. Just. Seriously. This one is so simple. By reducing the supply of metals (oh, and coincidentally, not destroying Kentucky, West Virginia, the Baja peninsula, western Australia, chunks of Canada, etc...) the price will make recycled materials more competitive with virgin materials. Structural steel may need new ore, but Aluminum can be refined over and over forever, and it is 20 times more energy intensive to source a can from raw materials than post consumer. Letting metals recycling fail would a terribly foolhardy, short-sighted policy failure which will be remembered in the future by salvage workers who dig up old landfills for aluminum scrap.

Actually there are a million things I can think of, but the point is the same. When recycled materials get cheap, its time to make people use them, not to stop recycling them.

K, I'm done.

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