(BLOOMBERG)Â Adam MinterÂ âÂ The American recycling business is in the dumps.Â AccordingÂ to Dave Steinert, 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 –Â Â own — running in the red. Things are so dire that some recyclers are preparing to do the once-unthinkable:Â charge cities and their residentsÂ 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.
The recycling industry’s refusal to evolve with America’s changing relationship with print newspapers is a case in point.Â According to the American Forestry & Paper Association, between 1994 and 2014, U.S. newspaper recycling rates rose from 49.8 percent to 68.9 percent, the product of recycling companies’ expansion of curbside recycling programs across the United States. But expanding recycling rates were accompanied by a worrying trend: Thanks to the Internet, the actual volume of newspapers that has ended up in bins declined during that 20-year period, from 15.81 million tons to 7.89 tons. In other words, the U.S. recycling industry has been spending a lot more money to collect a lot less paper.