By 2000, the recycling sector comprised 56,000 companies, tens of thousands of government programs, 1.5 million jobs, and annual sales of $300 billion. Recycling captured the hearts and minds of the American people. Yet today the recycling rate has stagnated.
In order to stem the tide of recycling, Big Waste took action to protect its hauling and landfill market shares. It introduced single-stream recycling in which all recyclables were put in a single cart, and started gobbling up materials processing capacity. In 1995 only five cities in the U.S. had adopted single-stream recycling; by 2003, that number had risen to 94. Soon single-stream became the norm with, 65% of the population using single-stream in 2010, up from 29% in 2005. The percentage of the U.S. using dual-stream systems (which keep paper separate from glass, plastic, and metal) plummeted from 70% to 34%.
Cities were convinced that single-stream would increase recycling participation and rates. Instead, recycling rates stagnated, except in motivated cities, and most cities had to transport their materials long distances to centralized MRFs established and owned by Big Waste. Washington, D.C. dropped dual-stream recycling and put an in-town processor with 25 workers out of business. The city now spends an estimated $500,000 to ship recyclables 40 miles to a mega processing facility. The city’s recycling rate remains stagnant.