Recycling in the United States - Statistics & Facts
Recycling is the process of collecting, processing, and remanufacturing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash. There a several benefits to recycling, such as conserving natural resources, decreasing the amount of waste sent to landfills, and reduce environmental pollution. There is no federal law that mandates recycling in the United States. Therefore, recycling legislation is localized through city or state governments. Individual states and cities are responsible for the management of waste and can create recycling goals or landfill bans of recyclable materials.
While the overall recycling rate is relatively low in the U.S., it varies greatly by material. Paper and paperboard have consistently been the most recycled waste material in the U.S. and accounted for roughly 66 percent of the 69 million metric tons of recycled MSW in 2018. Meanwhile, plastics accounted for less than five percent, with a recycling rate of just 8.7 percent. PET and HDPE bottles have the highest recycling rate of plastic containers and packaging by far but are still at just 30 percent. This means that some 90 percent of all U.S. plastic waste is never recycled and ends up either landfilled, incinerated, or leaking into environments. The impact of plastic waste pollution has been brought to global attention in recent years, garnering increased support for improvements to the recycling system.
Problems with the U.S. recycling system
Despite being the world’s biggest economy, the U.S. recycling system faces many challenges. One such challenge is that many Americans struggle to understand the system. It is often not known what products are recyclable or which bins to place certain materials in, resulting in contamination. In a bid to raise awareness about recycling, each year millions of Americans take part in “America Recycles Day” on November 15th. Another issue is the accessibility of collection sites. It is estimated that just 59 percent of U.S. single-family households have access to curbside recycling services, while six percent have no recycling services available at all.
U.S. waste management services were put under immense pressure recently when China imposed a ban on foreign waste imports, stalling recycling around the world. Despite many Americans believing that what they carefully sort is recycled and turned into something new, it is often shipped abroad to developing countries without the capacity and infrastructure to efficiently recycle waste. Despite this, these waste exports are counted as “recycled” by official figures.
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Research lead covering environment and sustainability