There are no signs yet of a nationwide abandonment of recycling programs. But industry executives say that after years of growth, the whole system is facing an abrupt slowdown.
Many large recyclers now say they are accumulating tons of material, either because they have contracts with big cities to continue to take the scrap or because they are banking on a future price rebound.
"We're warehousing it and warehousing it and warehousing it," said Johnny Gold, senior vice president at the Newark Group, a company that has 13 recycling plants across the country. Gold said the industry had seen downturns before but not like this.
The precipitous drop in prices for recyclables makes the stock market's performance seem almost enviable.
On the West Coast, for example, mixed paper is selling for $20 to $25 a ton, down from $105 in October, according to Official Board Markets, a newsletter that tracks paper prices. And recyclers say tin is worth about $5 a ton, down from $327 earlier this year. There is greater domestic demand for glass, so its price has not fallen as much.
The downturn offers some insight into the forces behind the recycling boom of recent years. Environmentally conscious consumers have been able to feel good about sorting their recycling and putting it on the curb. But most recycling programs have been driven as much by raw economics as by activism.