Why Recycling Doesn't Make Money Anymore

June 24, 2015

Tucked in the woods 30 miles north of Washington, D.C., is a plant packed with energy-guzzling machines that can make even an environmentalist’s heart sing — giant conveyor belts, sorters and crushers saving a thousand tons of paper, plastic and other recyclables from reaching landfills each day.

The 24-hour operation is a sign that after three decades of trying, a culture of curbside recycling has become ingrained in cities and counties across the country. Happy Valley, however, it is not.

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.

In short, the business of American recycling has stalled. And industry leaders warn that the situation is worse than it appears.

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