Drop in recycling commodity prices puts squeeze on local programs 

Ed Copelin used to make a tidy sum from bales of cardboard boxes from his Norman business, Copelin's Office Supply.

But there won't be a check coming from the last few times the cardboard bales were picked up. The bales aren't worth enough to compensate Copelin for them.


That hasn't daunted his recycling efforts, however. He was inspired to begin recycling when he tired of his cardboard trash bin filling up with non-flattened boxes left by the public. That left his employees with the job of jumping on the boxes to mash them down. He bought a baler in response.

"I still believe in the recycling process," Copelin said. "I think it's important to recycle."

Recycling nationally is being mashed, crushed and melted because of falling commodity prices and drops in manufacturing around the world due to the lagging economy.

When companies are no longer making products, they don't need the raw material for those products, and it hurts recycling efforts. The insatiable hunger for recycled materials by emerging countries like China was fueling aggressive recycling programs.

That has slowed almost to a stop.

But, the Oklahoma City area is faring better than most places in the country, according to local recycling proponents.

That should hold for the short term. But commodity prices have tumbled up to 80 percent. If they don't start trending back up, it could cause problems for recycling in the long term.

In places like Seattle and Atlanta, the city-run recycling programs are struggling with those prices, which had been used in the past to offset recycling costs. It's caused some cities to scale back their curbside recycling pickups to every other week.

Here, outsourcing those recycling duties has turned into a boon " at least for now.

The cities of Oklahoma City, Norman and Edmond have contracts with Waste Management to perform their curbside recycling chores. According to its Web site, Waste Management picked up enough recyclables nationally last year to fill the Empire State Building eight times.

The company picks up glass, plastic, newspaper, tin and aluminum cans from residents in the three cities.

Once the recycled material is in the bins, it becomes the property of Waste Management.

Mark Jordan of Waste Management said the drop in recycling commodity prices hasn't impacted the cities at all.

"Here in Oklahoma City, we've been kind of blessed. A lot of our stuff stays here locally," he said, noting most of the problems have been on the coasts. 

Jordan said WM employs a marketing team to find a destination for the products it recycles. It features a gleaming and massive material recycling facility just west of downtown and regularly sends its own rail cars with commodities to various destinations.

"We've been able to move all our materials that we were doing before," he said.

And he believes commodity prices will come back into line before contracts run out.

The City of Oklahoma City recycles about 3 percent of its total waste stream of 300,000 tons per year, said Debbie Ragan, public information officer for the city utilities department. That translates to about 10,000 tons of garbage kept out of the landfill.

The recycling rate for Oklahoma City is about 25 percent weekly and about 40 percent monthly, she said. And they continue to want more recyclers.

"It's still not as high as we'd like it to be," Ragan said. "We still want to encourage recycling, because things might change and they probably will."

The City of Norman began its curbside recycling program in March 2008 after approval by a 71 percent margin of voters.

In its recently completed first year of curbside recycling, Norman increased its recycling by 2,900 tons.

Curbside recycling netted 3,500 tons, while its three recycling drop-off centers brought in another 1,300 tons of recycled material. Cardboard pickup from businesses added 600 tons.

Participation in Norman's new curbside recycling program averaged 47 percent. Even with the addition of curbside service, the effect only reduced recycling at Norman's drop-off centers by 32 percent, or about 600 tons. Apartment dwellers don't get the curbside service, nor do the city's rural residents. The recycling drop-off centers are maintained for those residents.

"So far, we've been very, very lucky," said Ken Komiske, director of utilities.

Norman also kept another approximately 9,000 tons out of the landfill of yard waste, which is currently being reprocessed into mulch for free use by residents. Its new compost facility will come online this summer, making free "black gold" for Norman's gardens. "Carol Cole-Frowe

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