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Adam Minter

Recycling Industry Created Its Own Mess

American trash habits changed. Recycling companies didn't.
Reuse, reduce, reconsider blaming others.

Reuse, reduce, reconsider blaming others.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Updated on

The American recycling business is in the dumps. According to Dave Steiner, the CEO of Waste Management, America's largest recycling company, the industry is experiencing a "national crisis," with almost all of America's 2,000 high-tech recycling facilities -- including Steiner's own -- running in the red. Things are so dire that some recyclers are preparing to do the once-unthinkable: charge cities and their residents for accepting their recycling.

The recycling industry likes to imply that the American public, and its allegedly lax recycling habits, bear responsibility for its sinking fortunes. But before reaching for their wallets, Americans ought to scrutinize why exactly recycling companies' promises of a low-cost green future didn't pan out. The real turning point wasn't a decline in Americans' interest in recycling, but a gradual shift in what Americans started throwing away -- one that many recycling companies could have, but failed to, prepare for.