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Recycling prices threaten businesses

Langley resident Mackenzie Neal dumps paper in the bin at Island Recycling. The Freeland-based recycler continues to collect residents recyclables despite a dramatic decline in the value of such goods.   - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Langley resident Mackenzie Neal dumps paper in the bin at Island Recycling. The Freeland-based recycler continues to collect residents recyclables despite a dramatic decline in the value of such goods.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

As environmentally-conscious islanders fill bins with paper, plastics and other recycled materials, companies responsible for collecting and selling the materials are in a dilemma.

The price for recycled materials has plummeted in recent months along with the world economy, but workers are still collecting the same amount of materials that need to be processed.

“It sucks,” said Dave Campbell, who, along with his wife, Jill, owns Island Recycling in Freeland. “Imagine your income being cut by 70 percent and 90 percent and still having to do the same work.”

Prices for recycled materials were at all-time highs last summer but then dive-bombed shortly after the Olympic games. Campbell said the price for recycled plastics is hovering at around zero. Aluminum cans have dropped from a high of 88 cents a pound to a low of 25 cents a pound. He said his buyer for aluminum isn’t taking any cans until after the first of the year. The only item that still has any value is newspaper, but that has lost nearly half its value in recent months. It went for a high of $120 a ton before sinking to $70 a ton.

He said recycling businesses have stopped purchasing such items.

Mike Christian, manager at Christian’s towing, storage, and auto recycling in Oak Harbor, said prices local recyclers get are set by a world market. He still takes old cars off people’s hands for free even though metal prices are low. The only bright spot he sees with the economy is that fuel prices have been falling.

“It’s tough out there,” Christian said, recalling that just a few months ago prices were unusually high. He said he is just about breaking even with selling scrap at today’s prices.

As for Island Recycling, Campbell said they used some money they had saved, but eventually they weren’t able to replace four employees who had left the company.

Island Recycling contracts with Island County to haul away and sell the materials gathered at the recycle stations and solid waste facility.

Jerry Mingo, recycling and hazardous waste coordinator for Island County, said the county pays Island Recycling $57 a ton to process and sell the materials collected. Mingo stressed that the contract includes all recycled materials, even items such as green glass that has no commercial value.

“The point is to get the whole array handled for a certain price per ton,” Mingo said.

Recycled materials that get processed account for approximately one-third of the material that goes through the solid waste facility south of Coupeville, Mingo said.

The dramatic drop in prices for recycled materials doesn’t directly affect the county’s recycling efforts. Campbell, who has owned Island Recycling since 1972, said he remains committed to his profession.

“We can rely that recycling won’t go away in the near future,” Mingo said.

However, the county is monitoring the prices of recycled materials and, if the situation doesn’t improve, may have to make changes.

“We can’t expect any company to operate at a financial loss,” Mingo said.

Options include renegotiating the contract, discontinuing recycling certain items or stockpiling material until prices change.

Campbell, however, said he’s aware of the county’s difficult budget situation so he doesn’t expect much help in the near future.

Christian added that the state Department of Ecology, which licenses recycling businesses, discourages the stockpiling of materials, so the option of piling it up to await higher prices is limited.

Campbell can only hope that the prices for recycled materials improve by the middle of next year. If not, he’ll have to make more changes to his operation.

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