THEME: The markets for recycled materials change over time.

GOAL: Students will see how fluctuating markets and prices affect recycling.

METHOD: Researching and analyzing prices for recyclables.

SUBJECTS: Business, math

SKILLS: Analyzing, interpreting, graphing

MATERIALS: Graph paper; transparencies; Recycling Services Directory (available from DEP's Division of Solid Waste Management)

TIME: Several months


For recycling to be worthwhile, collected materials must be remanufactured into desirable products and sold to consumers. This calls for industry to accept recycled goods in place of raw materials as its feedstock. A challenge that confronts recycling is the development of consistent end markets for materials separated from the waste stream.

Getting Started

What prices are being paid for recycled materials? What factors influence these prices? How often do the prices change?


  1. Discuss the concept of recycling. Illustrate the process with several examples of the "life histories" of recyclable items, from their natural resource base to their original use to how they are recycled and used a second time and third time, and so on.
  2. Obtain DEP's Recycling Services Directory. Working in teams, have the students interview several recyclers, asking questions such as: What recyclables do you collect? How much do you collect of each type (weekly, monthly)? What price do you currently receive for each ton of material delivered to market? What factors influence the price you are paid for each item? Are there markets for other recyclables not now being collected? Have each team write up its interview in the format of a newspaper article.
  3. Using the data obtained from different recyclers, have the students generate the following graphs:
    1. Amount of each material collected monthly per hauler
      • Glass (green, brown, clear, mixed)
      • Paper (e.g., newsprint, corrugated cardboard, mixed paper)
      • Metal (steel and aluminum cans)
      • Plastic (HDPE, PET, etc.)
    2. Fee ($/ton) charged by haulers to collect recyclables
    3. Cost ($/ton) to process recyclables
    4. Price received per material when sold to manufacturers

Have the teams repeat this exercise for several months to examine price fluctuations. Which types of recyclables pay the most? Why might the prices vary from month to month?


  1. Have the teams research where the recycled items are picked up and where they are eventually taken. Compare the transportation costs with the value of the materials being recycled.
  2. Have the students research the advantages and disadvantages of industry using recycled goods instead of virgin raw materials. They should examine issues such as: For what types of goods does this work the best? Is it more or less expensive to use recycled feedstock? Are these cost differences passed on to the consumer? Does industry have difficulties finding a consistent supply of recycled materials?

Source: Adapted from State of Washington, Department of Ecology, A-Way With Waste