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EARTHWATCH

Resale Waste Market Is Too Good to Scrap : Recycling has become so profitable that it has generated a new commodity stream.

March 30, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last week I tore myself away the encircling grip of the Simpson trial to answer a Higher Calling in the form of an invitation from the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which wanted me to attend its annual meeting and counsel attendees on why scrap had a lower media profile than, say, the aforementioned Simpson trial.

I wasn't the only person from around here on the road last week in the service of recycling. Dr. Kay Martin, director of Solid Waste Management for Ventura County, was summoned to Washington to testify before a congressional subcommittee about waste.

It turns out that we both went to some lengths to explain to folks who should know otherwise that the words scrap and waste need to be rethought.

Martin puts it better than I do: "All segments of the municipal waste stream have become articles of commerce . . . a commodity stream," she says. Part of her job is to keep tabs on the resale market for things like old cardboard boxes, broken glass and--perhaps not so surprisingly--scrap metal.

I merely pointed out to the scrap dealers--the folks who buy materials from municipal waste collection facilities--that they should change their trade group's name to the National Resources Institute.

A provocation? Not so, when steel and cardboard scrap are fetching the identical sums--$140 a ton--on the open market. Steel, traditionally called "the sinew of America," is nowadays made more from scrap than from ground ore. We've strip-mined all the good ore, sort of a concave version of the clear-cutting process that decimated another resource, wood. There was no spotted owl living in ore country, so that domestic resource was totally zapped. Now we dig for it in Trinidad and Tobago.

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Wood for conversion to cardboard fiber has become so scarce that Weyerhaeuser, the Tacoma, Wash., paper products giant, now pays K mart, the national retailing giant, a cool million dollars a month for the empty cardboard boxes it puts out the back door of the store. Fiber for newsprint is in such demand worldwide that trees aren't growing fast enough to satisfy it--and prices are skyrocketing.

You already know from reading these columns that Anheuser-Busch set up its own company to collect 17 billion empty aluminum cans for re-melting and refilling because it needs that many each year to stay in business. Mustn't let them empties get shipped away to Singapore.

The reason the House Commerce Committee members summoned Martin to Washington last week wasn't to get vocabulary lessons or the day's market quote on steel scrap and the like. That's now being reported daily in publications like the Wall Street Journal--and may soon be listed by the Chicago Board of Trade.

Lawmakers were interested in her analysis of the events that have propelled worldwide demand for unglamorous trash to such heights. In the United States, we sort of wandered into a bizarre situation where Washington was subsidizing the incineration and landfilling of municipal waste just as everyone else in the world, especially in Asia, was beginning to use it for boxes and boats. Garbage became gold.

A crisis with the innocuous name "flow control" emerged. Localities had floated big bond issues to build public waste-handling facilities--but now nobody's hauling junk there and paying the disposal fee.

Martin's observations interest Congress because she's from a county that, as she explained in her testimony, "chose to rely upon privately financed infrastructure and the buying of competitively priced solid waste services."

Our local setup costs us a lot less than other communities pay because it encourages the marketing of these newly emerging "commodities."

In some communities, mostly in New England, a store like K mart couldn't sell its old boxes to a scrap dealer but had to surrender them to a city-approved garbage hauler who had to take them into the city facility--for a fee.

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I've made the point--albeit in less politically charged settings--that we should be calling this stuff our "national resources" ever since I heard that some mainland-China business interests were trying to buy and barge away our county's entire waste-stream unsorted .

But, at this point, I'm still wondering if anything Martin or I say can get anyone's attention away from the Simpson trial. What about the fact that aluminum empties are now worth more by the pound than frozen chicken?

Richard Kahlenberg, who writes the weekly Earthwatch column, has been reporting on the environment since Earth Day I. Nowadays he recycles everything. You can write to him at 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.

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