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Recycling market sees downturn

ST. PETERSBURG — Good news: We're recycling more than ever before.

Bad news: No one wants to buy it.

In the past two months, the market for recycled garbage has crashed.

So drastic is the price drop for recycled plastic, newspapers and aluminum that some recycling contractors have started to stockpile with the hope that the market will recover.

"Not a whole lot is being sold," said Ron Henricks, manager for the state Department of Environmental Protection's recycling programs. "The Chinese have basically cut the water off and the domestic market in the U.S. is not developed enough to take all that's out there at this point."

In the past, as much as 75 percent of U.S. recyclables went to China. Two months ago, that stopped, resulting in drastic dips in value.

For example, in Pasco County, a shipment of 41,740 pounds of plastic bottles sold for $835 in November. A year ago, the same load would have fetched $6,261. Recently, 17 tons of aluminum sold for $15,050. A year ago, it would have generated $28,578.

"Sometimes you make money and other times you have to pay someone to take it from you," said Jennifer Seney, recycling coordinator for Pasco County.

There have been crashes in the recycling market before. But never at a time when there has been so much pressure to recycle to reduce global warming and greenhouse gas emissions.

"The demand is less but the push to recycle has gone up and that's a good thing because everybody wants to preserve natural resources," said Michelle Thornhill, a vice president of operations for the southeast division of SP Recycling, the company that handles Pinellas County's recyclables.

In Florida this year, the Legislature directed the state to come up with a plan for what it would take to recycle 75 percent of all garbage. Now, Florida recycles about 24 percent.

In many places, recycling is as easy as walking the items out to the curb. In the Tampa Bay area, Tampa, Clearwater and Hillsborough and Pasco counties are the largest areas that offer curbside recycling. Pinellas County has relied on dropoff sites, but is developing a plan that would provide curbside services throughout the county, even possibly in St. Petersburg.

Tim Gutowski, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, suggests that if the market prices don't increase, you might see some recyclers going out of business or dumping their collections in the landfill.

"You may have to end up paying to recycle," he said. "The situation for the environment doesn't change though. It still has all those benefits."

Joseph Fernandez, solid waste program manager for Pinellas County, said no recycled trash from unincorporated Pinellas County is going to the landfill at this point. "It doesn't make sense to go through all that time to collect the material and not go to market," he said. "It's still cheaper in the long run — even if you have to pay to recycle it now."

The solution, recycling advocates say, is for consumers to buy recycled goods over other items.

"It's not enough just to collect the stuff," Henricks said. "We have to create demand for stuff made out of recycled materials."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.

Prices of recycled items
in the Southeast

Item Price now
(per ton)
Price in July
(per ton)
Aluminum cans $1,350 $1,900
Plastics PET (clear bottles) $80 $420
Newsprint $45 $162.50

Across Florida, a recycled soda can or newspaper can take many different paths, depending on where you live, whether you have curbside recycling and how the recycling companies disburse the items. In Pinellas County alone, more than a dozen municipalities offer curbside recycling as part of their garbage pickup, while St. Petersburg and the county offer dropoff recycling. All handle recycled goods in different ways, and plastic bottles in Gulfport may not end up in the same place as plastic bottles in St. Petersburg. To demonstrate, we looked at the journey an item might typically make in unincorporated Pinellas.

FIRST: A total of 229,870 tons of materials was recycled throughout all of Pinellas
County last year. Of that, Pinellas took in 1,870 tons at 13 dropoff centers in unincorporated parts of the county. Clearwater generates the most recycled materials through its curbside program with 6,581 tons collected last year.

SECOND: Pinellas has contracted with SP Recycling Co. to pick up the items from its dropoff bins. The company's trucks drop off paper, aluminum, plastics and cardboards at its facility in Largo, where it is divided into several bays.

Newsprint, paper and junk mail are shipped to the company's paper mill in Dublin, Ga. These items can become a newspaper on your doorstep within a few days.

Plastics, aluminum and tin are sent to Polk County's materials recovery facility. The items are placed on a conveyor belt. Aluminum is kicked off the conveyor belt with an electrical current. It is typically sent to processors that make aluminum cans for Anheuser-Busch. Tin, such as soup and bean cans, is removed with magnets and sent to a company called Tube City in Birmingham, Ala., where it is remade into steel ingots and resold.

Plastics end up in another area and are sent to several companies, depending on the type of plastic. Clear water bottles, for example, go to Mohawk Industries Inc. in Georgia to be made into carpets and rugs. Colored bottles that once held laundry detergent go to companies like KW Plastics in Troy, Ala., where they are ground, washed and sold in pellet form to companies that make things like portable bathrooms and garbage cans.

Recycling market sees downturn 12/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 7:27am]
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