My Turn: The story behind the death of recycling

For the Monitor
Sunday, March 20, 2016
It looks like the forces of evil, a.k.a. the big waste companies, are finally going to have their way. Recycling as we have come to know it will soon be a thing of the past.

Here are the main reasons this is happening:

Reason No. 1

Recycling made money. People who say otherwise are ridiculous. Where did all the infrastructure to handle all those materials come from? Where did the money to pay for hauling and other costs come from? Where did the money to pay municipalities and others for materials come from? From profits. But that was also the industry’s undoing.

What started as a penny business run by the garbage business on the side soon mushroomed into a standard American economic bubble, the myth of the eternal growth industry based on people’s trash. Not very realistic.

Reason No. 2

Recycling made a lot of money recently. For more than 10 years, countries such as China and Turkey have been stockpiling resources. The cheapest way to get them is to buy them out of our trash. This created another so-called green profit bubble that everyone latched onto in the name of the Earth (and growth).

The fact that we have no idea how China and Turkey will ultimately use these important resources is beyond the scope of investor vision-guided policy in the U.S. Towns and other trash producers in the U.S. bought expensive equipment and hired more people to bale and handle materials. Rural scrounges switched from petty crime to the scrap business, and soon unoccupied homes were relieved of their copper pipes.

Another American economic success story – until last year when China and Turkey decided they had enough and recycling returned to being a penny business. People in the industry for less than 10 years had never even heard of this kind of market. Crash.

Reason No. 3

Waste Management and other garbage giants have never been in the recycling business. It was forced on them by activists in the 1980s, and they did it where they had to like everyone else. When it made them money, they took credit for having invented it. But all along they were a landfill and incinerator business.

When recycling was hot due to export markets, the biggies made money but were always looking for a scheme that would appeal to basic American weakness – a desire for convenience.


When we started in this business, it was a scrap industry. You sold clean resources to jobbers for cash. When recycling went mainstream, the powers that be claimed they had to make it simple to make it huge. So even though groups like the EAC in New York City had demonstrated that multi-material collections could work in high rises, etc., New York City and everyone else went for the curbside, simple, co-mingled sort methodology. And in the end, that probably was a good call. Stuff got collected without costing as much, and with improved technology the sorting of all that stuff got better so it didn’t end up being just garbage. But that wasn’t enough. That two-stream process (paper/cardboard and cans/bottle/plastics) was still not convenient enough. So they cooked up this new, even easier to sell process called “single stream.”

With this process you didn’t have to sort into three categories (cans and bottles/plastics, papers/cardboard and trash), but only two: recyclables and trash. What an improvement.

Now people who couldn’t figure out the difference between cans and cardboard boxes could finally get involved with recycling, and towns and other waste producers could cut services, lay off people and automate their collections with robot trucks that pick up two materials and only need one driver operating a crane arm on a TV screen. Get rid of jobs for people in town who used to do this work so they can now go on public assistance. Looks good on the budget, though.

Even though many recyclers in the nonprofit world screamed this would be a disaster, lots of municipal customers signed up for single stream, egged on by promises of guaranteed cash for their recyclables and the chance to cut collection costs. With the required number of trash producers signed up, big single-sort facilities were built to handle the guaranteed tonnages.

Of course, buried in the contracts all these towns signed was language that guaranteed the single-stream companies a profit if the markets failed to keep up. But of course the price of recyclables kept going up for 10 years, so how could anything go wrong?

The price of oil was high, which meant plastics were always worth plenty and foreign countries couldn’t get enough of our trash. Nothing like a growth industry to attract the brightest and the best. Wow, isn’t reducing waste easy? Just like the TV commercials said.

The crash

This single stream is brilliant, making everyone look like geniuses – easier, cheaper and everyone’s getting paid. Meanwhile, nonprofits (like NRRA in New Hampshire) warned of obvious realities: mixing paper products and food containers makes trash, and fuel costs and markets for recyclables fluctuate (you know, the usual un-American leftist stuff). Then of course that perfect storm occurred, which the originators of single stream could never have predicted: foreign markets dried up, the price of oil went down (making plastics worthless) and folks getting free recyclable collection but paying for their trash – now getting weighed on the automated truck – put all kinds of stuff into their much bigger free recycling bins.

Who could have known that was going to happen? The brand-new, automated, single-stream plants that hardly had to hire anyone were suddenly clogged up with the refuse in the recyclables stream: car parts (including fenders and engine blocks), plastic shrink wrap (including the mile-long sheets of unbreakable “boat wrap” used by thousands of yacht owners to protect their vessels in the winter), dead animals, you name it. Suddenly these high-profit trash handling facilities started breaking down, now required to hire hundreds of non-union people to climb into these high-tech trash blenders and cut the shrink wrap (with all the debris trapped in it) out of the giant cutter blades using hand-held box cutters. Every day.

Suddenly, and so soon after signing up, the towns that were expecting to make a huge profit were faced with big bills for extra processing. This contamination, combined with collapses in markets and oil prices, meant all single-stream users were now faced with enormous bills for recycling – up to twice the cost of handling trash. For years, since they signed those contracts. And guess what? All the investment money for recycling had been channeled into those high-profit single-stream mills that went bust right after they were built so there was nothing left for traditional approaches.

Who could have predicted that? The company with all the landfills?

(Carl Hultberg of Danbury works at the Danbury Transfer Station.)

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