Abstract: Transmutation of the “Urban Ore”: The Business of Recycling, 1970-1995

Jon Corey Hazlett


In the 1990s recycling emerged as a ubiquitous expression of environmental stewardship embraced by environmentalists and corporations alike. This paper explores the development of recycling initiatives as a part of larger business strategies within the secondary materials and waste management industries in the 1970s and beyond. Secondary materials industries attempted to create market demand for recyclable materials through various tax incentives and other subsidies designed to create a more sustainable production process. Alternatively, waste management firms focused on the supply side and the use of consumer waste to create energy. In the process they developed resource recovery technologies and fostered relationships with local and state governments across the country that allowed them to capitalize on changing legal structures of waste disposal throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. The processing of consumer waste had been commodified and waste management firms were poised to implement recycling programs into their business plans. While the idea of recycling was imbued with visions of ecological sustainability, it was the business of recycling that was a defining component of postwar environmentalism.