Is the Recession Good or Bad for Sustainability?

Recently, I've been giving quite a bit of thought to whether the recession is a positive or negative for sustainability. On the one hand, reduced production in China where manufacturers source much of their power from significantly polluting old coal power plants is probably a good thing when it comes to reducing CO2 and particulates in the air. But on the other, when recycling and scrap programs become more costly than the returns they deliver, it feels like we're taking a backward turn when it comes to green initiatives. Over on Metal Miner, my wife and her co-bloggers Stuart Burns and Amy Edwards have written a number of pieces about the declining value of scrap programs for a range of metals since the commodity markets slump began. But recycling programs aren't just limited to scrap metals. The above-linked article from a regional newspaper,The Buffalo News, explains why corrugated recycling is on the decline.

The story notes "just four months ago, the price of old corrugated cardboard -- a mainstay of the recovered paper market -- was riding high at $110 per ton. This month, it's down to $25 … With a value of $25 a ton, the cost to bale and process cardboard is more than the price recyclers get from the paper mills they supply. So, recovered paper is piling up across the country with no place to go." So what's the cure to get corrugated recycling programs back on track? Short of either increased spending to spur demand for retail and other products that use significant corrugated material or government incentives to encourage recycling and scrap programs, I suspect that we'll continue to see recycling and scrap programs looking like an economically infeasible activity for the foreseeable future. But given that we're consuming less dirty power in developing countries as plants shutter shifts and retailers close their doors, perhaps the best thing is to let the invisible hand work its wonders -- now that the green impact appears to be, if anything, a wash.

- Jason Busch

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