Leaders at four of the country’s largest waste management companies told attendees of last week’s Waste Expo conference America’s curbside recycling system is in need of a dramatic overhaul.

While lending tentative optimism toward the waste industry as a whole, participants of the “Heavy Hitters” panel stressed curbside recycling is no longer the cash cow it used to be.

“It’s the single-stream, high-volume residential stream that’s completely broken,” David Steiner, CEO of Waste Management, commented. “We all screwed it up.”

The issue was a major focus of the hour-long session held at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The executives said low recycling fees and prevalent revenue-sharing with communities fails to account for today’s increasing processing costs associated with single-stream programs and falling recycled commodity pricing.

“This is a crisis,” Steiner said. “Never have we had prices as down as they are today.”

Processing costs, meanwhile, are going up.

According to Ron Mittelstaedt, the CEO of Waste Connections, processing costs today average $80 to $100 per ton for his company despite the fact that households typically only see a $2 recycling fee per month. Disposal, meanwhile, costs Waste Connections between $30 and $40 per ton and residents pay about $25 a month for the service.

All four leaders agreed collection and processing costs should be covered before sharing surplus revenues with communities.

“If you’re collecting, you’ve got to charge for collection,” Joseph Quarin, CEO of Progressive Waste Solutions noted. “If you’re processing, you’ve got to charge for processing.”

“We’re bearing too much risk in our balance sheet,” Richard Burke, Advanced Disposal’s CEO, added.

Annual financial filings for all four of the publicly traded companies show recycling revenues account for between 2 and 10 percent of overall revenues. Together, the companies represented at the Waste Expo panel generate nearly half of the $65 billion annual revenues of the waste management industry, panel moderator Michael Hoffman, managing director of Stifel Financial, noted.

Despite the widespread support for the re-working of municipal contracts to make them more hauler-friendly, Waste Connections leader Mittelstaedt cautioned such changes might be difficult to implement.

“It’s a little naive for us to think we can completely change the system,” Mittelstaedt said.