It’s all connected

We have experienced a massive movement of jobs overseas and south of the border. This movement is now having a ripple effect on the economy and will eventually affect it in all aspects.

We may be somewhat insulated here in Western North Carolina as the laid-off workers jump in their pickup trucks, buy a toolbox, and get involved in the building trades. But ironically, a lot of people wishing to move here to escape the asphalt jungle and big-city life are only helping bring those same problems here.

And when those problems of crowding occur here, the things we have will be destroyed. Then what?

In addition to these growing concerns, we can see examples of other problems related to today’s massive economic changes.

For example, we can look at the recycling industry. Paper recycling has never been promoted as it should have been here in WNC, although it is beginning to catch on. The city of Asheville now diverts many materials it once sent to the landfill, and it saved a lot of money when it added mixed paper to its recycling program.

The addition of mixed paper came about through the efforts of a determined citizen and a mayor who cared about the environment. But the money saved by recycling is not the topic of this article.

As industry has moved south and overseas, the need for corrugated cardboard has decreased. You heard right. And recycled paper is used to make cardboard.

Graphic Packaging will close its Garden Grove, Calif., plant. Caraustar will close its Cedartown, Ga., paperboard mill. Smurfit Stone Container Corporation has tentatively decided to shut down four operations across the country (Waste News, Jan. 19, 2004). These mills are manufacturing linerboard, a product used to make corrugated cardboard. And as these operations close, what will happen to the demand for the recycled paper they once used? The ripple effect goes on.

Why are these mills closing? I repeat: They make linerboard, which is used to make the cardboard that is folded into cartons. When we don’t have any manufacturing, we sure don’t have a need for boxes, do we? The ripple effect goes on.

These plants employed more than 475 people, and those jobs paid well.

So how does all this relate to the local situation here at Blue Ridge Paper? Excess manufacturing capacity lowers the price of the product, meaning Blue Ridge Paper must become more cost-conscious. Score another one for the ripple effect.

Recycled paper will now have to be hauled a greater distance to other mills. The value of recycled paper will drop. The people employed in recycling will also find themselves out of work. The ripple rolls on.

That brings us back to burying the recycled paper, because we’ve been slow to develop manufacturing techniques for recycled products (such as insulation) and to market the recycled products we have (such as unbleached paper towels). Instead, we just take the easy road: Bury it! We would never think to figure out how to burn the fiber and capture the BTU value.

The search for wood fiber stimulated the search for the Americas. The king had no trees for his sailing ships’ masts. We never learn, do we?

A similar problem is occurring with aluminum. The secondary-aluminum smelters are finding it hard to get any. China is buying it because their manufacturing capacity is growing — taking the supply away from our aluminum mills (Recycling Today, January 2004).

So while China is importing the aluminum and using it, very little is being sold here in the good ol’ U.S.A. The ripple goes on with aluminum too.

In fact, it seems that China is growing in manufacturing by double digits each year. This means we have overcapacity in everything except affordable housing. And when all of those unemployed folks in WNC put that toolbox on their truck, then we’ll have an overabundance of people building houses — and today’s inflated prices may come back down.

But when we cut all the trees, cut roads through all the mountains and put curbs and drainpipes everywhere, who will want to live here? The ripple effect rolls on.

When will we learn?

The oil-producing nations have just announced a 10-percent cutback in production. How will this affect all the around-the-world shipping? The last time I checked, shipping, storage, refrigeration, air conditioning, marketing, advertising — and every “little” step along the way — were all tied to oil production. But the increased price of oil may have another ripple effect: We may come to find that it’s a good idea to produce things locally.

When will we learn that the ripple just keeps rolling on? When will we ever learn?

[Buncombe County resident Don Yelton recently presented a paper on river-basin-based taxation at the annual conference of the 2004 Water Resources Research Institute in Raleigh.]

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