The economy is so bad right now that even our trash is worthless. Experts estimate that prices for recycled paper, metal and plastics have dropped 50 to 70 percent, or not even worth the while to ship them across the Pacific to China, which has imported more than 70 percent of the materials used in its recycling industry. Scrap copper peaked at $8,000 a ton in 2007, and it now brings $3,000. Some sources say paper is even down as much as 80 percent.
Recycled American scrap has been sitting in ships in Chinese ports, or scrap yards. Increasingly that recycled material will go into landfills. From a design engineering standpoint, it makes that old claim of designing products that are “recyclable” even less tenable. Even stuff that has had real value, like PET soda bottles, or high-density polyethylene milk bottles, is now struggling to find markets. So what’s happening to plastic car interiors, or engineering materials in washing machines or computers? It’s certainly not part of a tenable, economic recycling stream at least now - if it ever was.
Interviews I had with a great engineering team at a Massachusetts company this week reminded me that we really have to make decisions for ourselves about what makes sense from an environmental point of view. Just saying we specified a bioplastic, for example, doesn’t make it a good environmental choice. Or saying that we used a “recyclable” material doesn’t mean we did a good turn for the environment. We need to consider factors like how much energy did it take to ship those sub assemblies I specified? Would it have been better environmentally to have paid 5 percent more and bought from a local supplier? I’m sure there are a whole series of issues like that. And that kind of thinking is very different from the kind of marketing spin you often hear.