Author says recycling industry failed to plan for changes to the waste and recycling stream

Adam Minter, author of "Junkyard Planet," says recycling industry decline isn’t because Americans have lost interest in recycling but because of the gradual shift in what Americans throw away.

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July 8, 2015
Municipal / IC&I Paper

In a July 7, 2015, article published by Bloomberg, Adam Minter, the Asia-based author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade, says the “national crisis” that Waste Management’s David Steiner says the recycling industry is experiencing in the U.S. is not the fault of America’s declining interest in recycling but of the industry’s failure to plan for the changing waste and recycling stream.

Minter points to the decline in newspaper generation as an example. He writes, “Unfortunately, the industry failed to change its infrastructure in response to America’s changing reading habits. The high-tech municipal recycling facilities that many recycling companies built during the recycling boom of the 1990s and 2000s were designed to handle—and profit from—lots and lots of paper. The recycling industry managed to ignore the hollowing out of its business model for a few years because China's commodity boom drove up the price of most recyclables, including paper. But once the commodity boom went bust in the early 2010s, U.S. recyclers lost their cover.”

However, Minter says if the industry’s problems were just related to the shrinking volume of recyclables because of the lightweighting trend in consumer packaging and the decline in newspaper readership, “it probably wouldn't be facing an outright crisis.” He adds, “The bigger problem is the expanding proportion of recyclables that are made of difficult-to-sort materials.”

Minter argues that the recycling industry could have addressed this change by better communicating best practices to the communities and residents they serve and by investing in optical sorting technology during the industry’s boom years.

He concludes, “But recycling companies can’t evade their own responsibility for the industry's woes. For years, they failed to acknowledge that their previously profitable business models no longer matched the reality of American trash habits.”