Even without looking at the headlines, a passerby can tell there’s been a slowdown in the world’s economy just by looking at the yard of the Newton County’s landfill.
Stacked four bales deep is a pile of accumulated cardboard the size of a small barge — two 20-ton loads — awaiting pickup.
Formerly a red-hot commodity, material such as cardboard, metal, newspaper and glass — things that solid waste brokers couldn’t get enough of a year ago — now collect in yards and bins across America.
"Last year was the best it’s ever been… And right now, it just fell out," said James Peters, Newton County’s Solid Waste Department director, who has been with Newton County’s program for the past 15 years. Price fluctuations are a normal part of the recycling industry, but these prices are at the extremes, he said. "This is the worst I‘ve seen it."
Prices started falling gradually in September, as the economy began to tank, and by December, they had hit rock-bottom, dropping to a fraction of what they were in the summer, he said.
Cardboard — which went for $105 a ton in July 2008 — dropped to $20 in January, according to Connie Waller, executive director of Keep Covington/Newton Beautiful. Similar drops were seen in aluminum (75 cents per pound in July to 40 cents a pound in November) and newspaper ($135 a ton in July to $26 a ton in December).
Metal recyclers echoed the sentiment, estimating that scrap metal prices have fallen to about 30 to 40 percent, and some smaller, informal collectors have even gone out of business.
"Right now, we’re just delighted our companies are still taking materials," Waller said.
Even so, the fall in prices hasn’t affected people’s rates of recycling in Newton County, say program heads, in part because individuals don’t see the prices.
"We have not stopped paying out for people who are recycling," Waller emphasized.
KCNB still donates the same amount to a non-profit of the person’s choice when residents bring their recyclables to the Turner Street Community Recycling Center. That might change in the future if the prices continue the way they have, said Waller.
Billy Bouchillon, director of the city of Covington’s Public Works Department, also pointed out that recycling was never profitable venture for most municipalities anyway, so the price drop did not affect the viability of the programs overall. Other factors, such as the drop in fuel prices, also play a factor in the cost of a recycling program.
Another reason recycling behaviors haven’t changed much is because the main motivation for Newton County residents — landfill space - has not changed
"The thing money can’t buy now is landfill space. That’s the reason for the recycling program," Bouchillon said.
It costs $33 per ton to put trash into the landfill, and Newton County produces about 350 tons of solid waste every day. By recycling, residents help the county and city save money on the landfill fees.
"That space is very expensive," Waller said. "And at the same time we’re saving natural resources, that’s a good thing. And we’re saving energy, because it doesn’t’ take as much to use recycled material as virgin materials. So there are other advantages to recycling other than making money."
One bright spot of the fall in scrap prices is the reduction in metal-related thefts and vandalism. Though numbers are hard to come by, since agencies don’t separate metal-related incidents, police agencies say they’ve noticed a correlating drop.
"Just from us seeing our cases, we’ve seen a drop in metal theft reports," said Covington Police Department Detective Daniel Seals. "We’ll almost know when the prices drop off as it slacks off."
"It doesn’t mean when the economy bounces back, it won’t come back," he added. "Hopefully not."
There are some hopeful signs, said Peters. The company that normally collects cardboard from the county recently called to say they would be picking up the accumulated stack. If the recyclables commodity market picks up in the next couple months, it could be a sign that the economy is on its way to recovery.