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Create Green Jobs? Can We Save 'Em First?

Last August, when the presidential race was a toss-up and the the stock market was not yet gyrating, Barack Obama's campaign released this paper, which promised that as president he would create five million "green jobs."

Not many, it seemed, would be in the recycling industry. The word "recycle" doesn't even appear in that 8-page paper. Probably because it's the one aspect of green living that Americans have mostly adapted to. Even in Broward County, which has an atrocious record for recycling, residents still separated paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic to be swept away from their curbs. It's easy, and when it comes to being environmentally conscious, recycling your trash is about the least you can do. So maybe Obama's campaign took it for granted, focusing instead on energy efficiency as the next phase in the nation's green future.

Only now, as the effects of the economic downturn are felt across the globe, it's become apparent that we're taking a giant step backward. Because entrepreneurs can't get credit and consumers are increasingly cautious about spending, less stuff is being made. And since much of that stuff was made from recycled materials, the materials themselves are no longer in high demand.

"There is no doubt that the price-per-yard and per-ton on all recyclable goods has gone down," says Sandy Pollack, director of legal affairs for Southern Waste, of Lantana. The company's haulers go to construction sites and scoop up rocks, scrap metal, paper, and concrete. They have built expensive recycling centers that with the help of workers divide those materials, which are then sold internationally, mostly to manufacturers.

Southern Waste has always charged its buyers by the yard, but as the company has watched those buyers become more cost-conscious and go elsewhere to purchase lightweight materials like paper, Southern Waste is now charging for those materials by the ton, making them cheaper.

Other companies, like Smurfit-Stone, have simply stopped picking up the paper recycling bins it left at local offices. The cost of collecting that paper was more than could be made from selling it to manufacturers.

Fans of the HBO series The Wire will remember scenes in which "Bubs," the show's junkie, swiped scrap metal from construction sites so that he could sell it and finance his next heroin fix. That racket wouldn't work in 2009. Metal that was selling for $300 per ton has dipped to a low of $30 per ton.

Cities, too, are in the business of selling recycled goods, though in Broward and Palm Beach counties, that's largely done through their respective solid waste districts, which haul and process all varieties of waste for the majority of cities. The dollars those districts make from selling recyclables reduces the cost for trash pickup, and the absence of that income will cause rates to rise for residents. Already, Palm Beach County is warehousing the materials whose values have fallen the most in hopes that the market will swing back.

But that same strategy is employed across the nation, suggesting that even when the market does come around, it will be so flooded by supply that demand will continue to suffer. It seems inevitable that recycled goods will end up in landfills, however much county officials hope to avoid it.

And about those green jobs? Yes, another consequence of the shrinking market for recycled goods could be layoffs. Pollack says that so far Southern Waste has trimmed payroll "primarily through attrition" -- not hiring workers to replace those who have left. "We hope we can do this forever," says Pollack, who points out that the company has recently made a string of big capital investments that signal its intention to weather the storm. "During the good years, we didn't pull money out -- we reinvested it. We're a very solvent company."

Smurfit-Stone's spokesman said he couldn't talk about the effect of market conditions on the company. Representatives for Choice Recycling, a division of Public Waste, have not yet returned calls.

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Thomas Francis

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