To the list of everything for which we are blaming the lousy economy add two ways it is negatively impacting the environment.

As everyone with a car or a furnace knows, oil prices have dropped through the floor in the last two months and there is speculation that gas may be priced under $1 a gallon soon.  So, naturally, people are again driving frequently, far, and alone in the car while being less conscientious about turning down the thermostat and turning off the lights.

It seems we will never learn.

And while oil prices have dropped, so has the return on recyclables, to the point that even salvage thieves are seeking other work.

The New York Times reports that contractors are currently holding thousands of tons of paper, cardboard, metal and plastic in their warehouses because no one is buying it or because the bid price is unacceptable.  In turn community recycling programs are beginning to cut back on their efforts.

Recycling has been a growing business in recent years as ways have been found to turn used plastic into fleecy textiles and outdoor construction lumber; salvaged metal into car parts; cardboard and paper into new paper and packaging products.  But you can just imagine what has happened to the market for new car parts or any type of construction material and consumers are buying fewer and fewer new clothes; thus prices and demand for their recycled components has dropped accordingly.

The Times reports that the bottom has fallen out of prices for mixed paper on the West Coast; in October is was $105 per ton, today it is $25.  Tin, worth $327 earlier this very year is now a $5 a ton commodity.

Contractors who collect from the curb for cities and counties and those who are secondary buyers are now stockpiling the materials and many are looking at sending it to local landfills as storage costs mount.  Harvard University used to send trash including plastic bottles and discarded newspapers to a recycling center and in return was paid $10 per ton.  They have now received notice from that center that they will be charged $20 per ton to get rid of the stuff.  This is, however, still well below the $87 per ton the University must pay to dump in a local landfill.

Harvard was not alone in using trash as a profit center.  WalMart and other big retail and grocery chains have made a healthy return on used cardboard and other materials and in many cases must now pay to get rid of it.

While there have not been major cutbacks in community based recycling programs as yet, some localities have eliminated selected products from their recycle lists.  Plastic and the type of light-weight cardboard used as food packaging are particularly unwelcome now and some communities are no longer picking them up.  At least one town has asked residents to temporarily warehouse their own newspaper, cardboard, and plastics until the situation improves.

And who knew that there has been a lucrative market in pillaging the trash.  Thieves have apparently thrived with well organized programs to take valuable materials from recycling centers or right out of recycle bins and designated dumpsters.  The Times report that, with profit margins slipping, many robbers have moved on to more rewarding lines of work.