Steve Young sits back in his chair and glances up from his figures. "I don't even think we have an industry. That's how bad it is."

Young, president of Allan Company, a Los Angeles processor and exporter of recyclable materials, nods towards the window. "Across the street we would process 600 customers on a weekday, 1,000 at the weekend," he says.

"The whole spectrum – the homeowner who has stockpiled aluminium cans, the bar down the street that has a load of beer bottles, the liquor store with used cardboard. Now it's probably half that number."

Young is on the frontline of a crash in commodity prices that has seen the global market for recycled paper, cardboard, plastic, metals and glass all but disappear. In three weeks in October, the price of paper went from $200 to $20 a ton, corrugated cardboard dropped from $250 a ton in August to $100 in December. It is the worst he has seen since founding the company in 1963.