Drop in oil prices squeezes local recycling programs

Plastic bottles in a recycling facility.
Plastic bottles in a recycling facility. Associated Press

The drop in crude oil prices, recently near 11-year lows, has been a boon to consumers, but it has cut the demand for recycled plastics — a petroleum product — and pinched local recycling programs.

The Centre County Recyling and Refuse Authority is selling some of its recycled plastics at a loss, spokeswoman Amy Schirf said, and Penn State has halted the collection of polystyrene food containers and paper hot cups because of marketplace changes.

Like commodities, recycled materials fluctuate in price and are subject to the same economic pushes and pulls as any other material, such as copper and silver. In some economic times, it might be cheaper for a company to buy raw materials instead of recycled ones.

The county refuse authority has not had to drop any materials from its recycling list.

Schirf said it figures the markets will change over time, which is why it continues to sell the category of miscellaneous plastics, found in anything from plumbing to plastic bottles, at a loss.

“We risk the fact of losing money during certain periods of time just because we don’t want to not recycle,” said Schirf, who is the authority’s education coordinator.

The authority is selling these plastics below market price because it is both morally right and to continue recycling them, according to Schirf. The sales of all other materials compensate for the loss, she said.

Even with recycling’s ups and downs, the authority, with the help of Penn State and participating local governments, hopes to reach zero waste within 40 years.

Schirf explained that over the past 10 years it has seen a decrease in overall garbage collected and an increase in tons collected for recycling.

“When I started nine years ago, I think our recycling that we would get was 10,000 tons in 2006 and it’s steadily gone up in the last nine years. The last numbers we just got was 14,000 tons,” she said.

In addition to the growth in recycling, Schirf said, the authority has seen total garbage collected per year drop from 100,000 tons in 2006 to 93,000 tons in 2014.

Penn State has also adapted. In 2014, its waste management program — named möbius for the infinity strip and run by the Office of Physical Plant — cut the amount of garbage thrown in landfills by more than 50 percent through recycling and composting.

Penn State composts organic materials at its Organic Materials Processing and Education Center. The university completes the loop by using the compost for plants and trees and in agricultural research.

About 111 volunteer Green Teams under the Office of Sustainability spread awareness of ways to reduce waste and educate students, faculty and staff in their organizations, buildings or departments. Twenty-eight of the teams are at commonwealth campuses.

At least 80 percent of Green Teams focus on recycling. Since recyclable materials go to the county refuse authority, Penn State gets a discount for every ton of material diverted from the landfill.

“In 2014 we had over 14,000 tons of waste, and approximately 8,000 of that we diverted from the landfill. Had we not diverted that from the landfill we would pay $67 a ton for all that waste. Instead ... we only pay them $10 or $20 (per ton) for that material,” said Lydia Vandenberg, director of employee engagement and education for the Office of Sustainability.

The refuse authority also hopes to further reduce its environmental impact by using natural gas in its fleet of trucks. The recycling center in Bellefonte has just added a new section to its building to hold compressed gas for fueling, Schirf said.

Mario Marroquin is a Penn State journalism student.