Are government subsidies going to save recycling?

The value of materials recovered in the recycling process is plummeting alongside oil and other commodities.

Since favorable economics are credited with driving the recycling push of recent years (as opposed to eco-conscious consumers), the future of recycling is now in question.

The New York Times reports that the price of tin is down from $327 a ton earlier this year to about $5. Mixed paper is down from $100 a ton to $20 to $25. Glass is an exception, with prices remaining steady.

Prices are dropping because there’s no longer a demand for recycled materials as the largest customer, China, has pulled back. Some collectors are stockpiling the recyclables until prices go back up, while others are refusing to accept more plastic and paper. Some are even beginning to charge to accept materials that they previously paid to obtain.

A new report last week showed that recycling paper and plastic consumes more energy and resources than it saves (see Report calls recycling a waste of energy). Metals were considered an exception to the findings, which suggested trash was better served as a fuel source for waste-to-energy plants.

So what does this mean for the businesses that have popped up to capitalize on the value of recyclables? It’s unclear.

Philadelphia-based RecycleBank, for example, gets paid by municipalities to divert trash from a landfill to a recycling center.

If there’s no value left in recyclables, will the industry have to resort to government subsidies to survive?