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The Economy (and History) of Recycling

Every once in awhile I come across an article that answers a lot of lingering questions:


  • Why do I feel like recycling is so important even though reducing is also key to helping the environment?

  • Is the nation in danger of taking the path chosen by New York City a few years ago, and discontinuing recyling programs because they are too costly?

  • and finally, why were people stealing copper wire out of anything they could get their hands on awhile back? (There's even a national Coalition Against Copper Theft.)

Carl Zimring, Assistant Professor of Social Science at Roosevelt University, is the author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America. He also wrote the informative article The Economic Crisis is an Environmental Crisis: Trash has Crashed. This blog has already mentioned that the plummeting prices for recycled materials stands to affect the people (many of them homeless) who make their living from the recycling market. Mr. Zimring traces the interdependence of these three forces: economics, scrap materials, and people, from the scrap iron market going bust in 1873 to the recyclable materials piling up in modern-day storehouses.

History, then, shows we have seen similar crashes in the value of recyclables reflecting broader economic crises.  It also tells us that the context for the current crash is different than what Americans experienced in 1873 or 1929.  The market for scrap recycling commodities differs in two important respects from the markets in those years.  One, the shift of manufacturing industries outside of the United States’ borders means the value of these commodities now depends on foreign sources of demand...

Two, the associations involved with recycling as an environmental ethic since the 1960s have led to new practices and regulations in the collection and sale of secondary commodities.  The Chicago Resource Center, for example, takes the revenue generated from its drop-off recycling centers and uses it to deliver produce to local social service agencies.   The crash now threatens the delivery of produce and organic baked goods to many of Chicago’s neediest residents.

While the most vulnerable people (those collecting cans on the street and/or those receiving services funded by recycling) are are the ones most likely to immediately feel fluctuations in the recycling market, recycling is a quintessentially human endeavor. It's a modern take on the idea of a social contract: people seeing the consequences of their trash as it affects themselves, their fellow humans, and the environment. A responsibility to the society or the earth was not necessarily on the minds of the "ragpickers" who gleaned a living from refuse in my grandparents' day. Recycling is an affirmation of our collective stake in the earth, although we know that it is only part of the environmental solution. Shipping plastic bottles halfway around the world to recycling centers that don't take into account human welfare is not the optimal scenario, either. I think, though, that the recycling fervor that has been nurtured over the past 20 years is a good fulcrum from which to move our society's habits into the next level of social+environmental responsibility (we can no longer honestly split the two). That is, unless it is no longer profitable to do so.

Read the entire article here.

Tags: Economy, Homeless, Recycling, Scrap, Social justice, Trash

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