In 1988, Houston-based Waste Management, the nation’s leading garbage hauler, launched its first large-scale curbside-recycling program under the direction of a man named Bill Moore, the company’s first recycling director. At the time, only about 10% of the country’s trash was recycled. But throughout the 1990s and 2000s, recycling programs mushroomed across the country: by 2015, the recycling rate had more than tripled, and Waste Management had become the largest residential recycler on the continent. The runner-up, Republic Services, recycled almost 5 million tons in 2014; Waste Management recycled more than 15 million tons.
Today, the company’s biggest challenge has little to do with the competition—it’s the business of recycling itself that’s the problem.
Profits across the recycling industry have been in free fall, due to technical challenges, changes in both manufacturing and consumer behavior, and waning demand for recycled materials. Since 2011, Waste Management’s earnings from recycling have declined by $200 million.