Why Are American Recycling Rates Still Stuck At 34 Percent?

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As environmental awareness grew, U.S. recycling rates saw a rapid uptick in the 1980s and ’90s. But the U.S. recycling rate has been stuck at around 34 percent for the past decade. In the meantime, consumption continues to grow, meaning more recyclable goods are ending up in landfills across the country. This is unsustainable. It’s time to jump start recycling and get us back on the path toward a circular economy.

So, why are we stuck? There are many factors at play. The initial gains were mostly in cities that could set up efficient recycling systems at a lower cost. Unfortunately, suburban, exurban and rural areas have been slow to adopt municipal recycling.

Gaps in consumer education also are a problem, as recycling regulations vary greatly from municipality to municipality, making it tough to know how to recycle properly.

Lastly, cost-effectiveness is a limiting factor. Recyclers need to utilize all the goods made from recycled waste, and it’s not necessarily cheap — especially when low gas prices keep, for example, virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic. It is no surprise that many opt for the former.

There is also an infrastructure challenge at play. As alluded to above, we lack centralized waste management systems in the United States: Nearly all are run at the city or county level by a myriad of public and private operators, all with varying levels of competency.

Some cities have made huge progress, such as Philadelphia – which quadrupled its recycling rate in just four years. Others, like where I grew up in Johnson County, Kansas, still lack free curbside recycling.

“A fragmented waste management system and the need for greater investment and capital in recycling infrastructure are [one of] many reasons the U.S national recycling rate has hovered around 34 percent,” Jennifer Gerholdt, senior director of the environment program for the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Corporate Citizenship Center, told TriplePundit.

This is an economic problem as well. Companies want to use more recycled content in their production. Coca-Cola, for example, has set a goal to use 25 percent recycled PET in its bottles, but has been unable to meet the timelines due to the challenge of getting enough recycled content.

Last month, the U.S. Chamber Foundation launched an ambitious project to change this. Beyond 34 aims to not only boost recycling, but also increase the recovery of reusable goods — with the ultimate goal of getting us to a fully closed-loop, circular economy.

“We [aim to] tackle the recycling and recovery gap in the U.S., and accelerate infrastructure development necessary to build and optimize closed-loop systems at the scale of the local economy,” Gerholdt told us.

The partnership aims to break through the 34-percent barrier through education, partnership-building, and increasing knowledge about how to take advantage of what they call a $4.5 trillion circular economic opportunity. Local Chambers across the country will be empowered to work with their municipalities directly, with resources and aid from the national foundation.

“We will support local municipalities and others to provide mentorship and education to help them take advantage of recycling, reuse and recovery infrastructure projects, construct the economic business case and opportunity for reprocessing these materials, and identify additional priority fundable projects and develop recycling business plans,” she explained.

Another place to look for inspiration is abroad. Many European countries have broken through the 34-percent barrier. Some, such as Sweden, have such a strong recycling and recovery infrastructure in place that they are actually importing trash.

The Chamber Foundation seems ideally placed to help companies and governments work together to both increase recycling rates and provide more recycled inputs at low costs to help companies meet their sustainability goals.

The ideal would be implement what San Francisco aims to do. There, the city’s recycling authority has the goal of being able to recycle almost anything the material world puts out through a mix of expanding citywide composting systems and new technologies that can better separate and recycle content.

We need to get better at this, and fast. This is becoming even more pressing with the global boom in e-commerce. More e-commerce means more goods are being delivered straight to people’s homes and, oftentimes, that means more packaging. Cities are already becoming overwhelmed by cardboard from rapid delivery services like Amazon Prime and Google Express and startups like Blue Apron, which send you pre-portioned ingredients in a recyclable package.

We’ll all need to work together to break through the 34-percent glass ceiling and hit the ultimate goal – 100 percent recycling and re-usability. Only then can we say that our waste management system is truly, genuinely sustainable.

Image credit: Terrance Ong via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

2 responses

  1. Good article but overlooks reality that changes in the waste stream – in particular the collapse of printed paper (down 20 million tons since 2000) and the ongoing lightweighting of containers has also kept the recycling rate from growing.

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