Oh, the irony.

Right at a time when it appears that Americans are boarding the green-living express en masse, the market for recyclables has plunged – the latest victim of the recession, according to today’s New York Times.

Contractors can’t find buyers for reusable paper and cardboard, which have accumulated by the ton and may wind up in landfills if recyclers can’t afford to put them in warehouses for the long term, the newspaper says. Those materials typically find second lives as boxes, auto parts and book covers, but as demand for electronics, cars, shoes and other items has slowed along with the economy, the recyclables are less needed for packaging.

“It’s awful,” Briana Sternberg, education and outreach coordinator for nonprofit Sedona Recycles in Arizona, told the Times. That group is no longer taking old cereal, rice and pasta boxes because their market has evaporated, and is at capacity for holding the recyclables it’s already accepted. “Either it goes to landfill or it begins to cost us money.”

The value of recyclables has slid over the last year, the Times notes: Mixed paper is going for $20 to $25 on the West Coast, from $105 just two months ago. Tin is a mere $5 per ton, down from $327 earlier this year.

Some cities are stopping their recycling programs because they no longer make financial sense, costing as much or more than disposing of the goods as trash. Kanawah County in West Virginia stopped taking most plastics and metals on Friday, according to the Times. But second-graders – who can always be counted on to set the grown-ups straight – made the adult decision to skip recess in favor of writing protest letters to officials in their town of South Charleston, West Virginia, after they were told recycling there might stop.

Their voices were heard: the town will now truck their recyclables to Kentucky. Still, the tykes might not appreciate the carbon footprint, or pollution, that comes with the trip: It’s 77 miles from South Charleston to Pikeville, KY.   

Updated at 11:45 a.m. to adjust distance between South Charleston and Pikeville, KY to 77 miles. It is about 213 miles between South Charleston and Louisville, not 615 miles as previously stated. 

Image by iStockphoto/Sirin Buse