A few years ago, the only people who came in to Alliance Recycling in Emeryville, Calif., were were pushing shopping carts. Now, the same center is seeing people pull up in late model cars.

“Since the economy burst,” Jay Anast of Alliance told KQED, “we’ve seen more of your middle-class types. We’re getting quite a bit of that now.”

California pays five cents for every aluminum, glass, and plastic beverage container, which means that last year, 82 percent of cans and bottles sold in California were recycled — up 55 percent since 2003.

Meanwhile, San Francisco's booming composting program has regional landfills scrambling to diversify their businesses as cities dump less trash in them than ever. The state of California has gone from a "landfill crisis" to enough free space to last at least 50 years.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Recycling is no longer a feel-good measure: without it, the American economy would literally grind to a halt.

“If the total recycling industry said ‘stop,’, says Powell, “ you wouldn’t have an American car made. They’re mainly made out of recycled steel. You wouldn’t have beverages as we have today. You’d have half the newspaper, because you could only get half the paper. Recycling is now just part of the normal economic order.”