Built in the 1690s, America's first recycling business was a Philadelphia mill that used rags to make paper. During the next 300 years, recycling was dominated by mom-and-pop companies that bought and sold rags, waste paper, scrap metal and other used goods. They worked closely with their markets and supplied the raw materials their customers needed. Recycling was a business dominated by the laws of supply and demand.
Twice during this period, recycling got religion. The first revival occurred during World War II when scrap became another weapon in our arsenal. But too much supply flooded the markets, and when the war was won, recycling became a business again.
Earth Day, 1970, had a deeper impact. Unlike air and water pollution, garbage was a "problem" that could be solved by each person's actions. Everybody could recycle and save the earth - by setting aside their paper, cans and bottles. Of course, becoming a religion created a new set of problems. Instead of being closely tied to a market's need for raw materials, recycling became closely tied to the immediate level of moral fervor. Economics and cost became less important. Nonprofit recyclers arose, proclaiming the moral superiority of their nonprofit status.
And yet, even the nonprofit organizers soon discovered a fundamental fact of life - workers had to be paid as well as equipment suppliers and transporters. Even a religion has to pay its bills and operate like a business.
After Earth Day excitement waned, recycling became a business again. But it was a different, somewhat politicized, business. Curbside collection of newspapers became common in the Northeast and parts of the West Coast in the '70s, and multimaterial curbside collection programs were starting up.
During the '80s, the number of curbside programs increased, even though recycling was not a media darling. Instead, during most of the '80s, recycling operated more like a business than a religion, slowly but steadily responding to increased market demand for recyclables and a belief that curbside recycling programs could lower solid waste management costs.
Then, in March 1987, the garbage barge began its voyage into mythology. Press coverage of the Flying Dutchman of trash was intense. Within five years, most states enacted laws requiring some recycling. Today, more than 10,000 communities have curbside collection. Taking out the recyclables is as normal as taking out the trash.
Recycling needs to get religion again, only this time it needs the religion of business. Collection and processing must become more efficient. Recyclers must operate their program with a keen eye for the bottom line. Profits for service-providers should be celebrated. Private sector collectors and MRF operators, along with their local government customers, need to develop risk sharing tools to sustain their programs in bad markets and share the gains of good markets.
After all, what could possibly be wrong with making recycling an asset instead of a liability?