Once a profitable business for cities and private employers alike, recycling in recent years has become a money-sucking enterprise. The District, Baltimore and many counties in between are contributing millions annually to prop up one of the nation’s busiest facilities here in Elkridge, Md. — but it is still losing money. In fact, almost every facility like it in the country is running in the red. And Waste Management and other recyclers say that more than 2,000 municipalities are paying to dispose of their recyclables instead of the other way around.
Early on (late 1980's, early 1990's) the problem with recycling was the time cost to households. The burden of separating paper, plastic, cans and bottles fell to the household and most households simply couldn't be bothered sorting and carrying 4 or 5 different bins to the curb (or in some cases, taking the bins to a recycling facility). With advances in sorting technologies and the realization that recycling might be profitable, municipalities made it easier on households to recycle: Just throw everything recyclable into the single big blue bin and we will do the rest. The problem now is that households don;t always know what is or isn't recyclable and sorting costs have increased, while the demand for recyclable inputs has decreased. The result: recycling is far less profitable (and perhaps now even unprofitable).
If this is more than a cyclical downturn in the recycling sector, it might be time to think about how to increase the cost of recycling to households.