Recycling is not created equal across this nation.

Averages, what do they tell us?  Not enough if the underlying data is wide-ranging.  In the world of recycling the range is very wide.

On average, according to the EPA, 60% of the population in the United States has access to curbside recycling programs.  As you can see on the map, availability varies widely by region.

Even within these regions, curbside recycling availability is most common within urban settings, likely due to the higher cost/inconvenience of transport in less densely populated rural areas.

Tons recovered per million people by region

Tons recovered per million people by region

By region, the impact on recovery of recycled materials (MRF throughput) is strongly correlated to curbside availability.  As the graph shows, the north east recovers more than twice the amount of recycled material per person than the south.  There are options for those who don’t have the convenience of curbside programs, but it takes an extra effort for the individual to take their recyclable materials to a local recycling center.  The EPA notes this website where you can search for recycling centers near you.

254 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) were produced in this country in 2007 according to the EPA report.  64 million tons of this MSW comes in the form of materials the average American “thinks” of as items we recycle.  (Plastic and glass bottles or containers, paper, cardboard, food cans and aluminum cans.)  On average, according to the EPA, in 2007, 54% of this amount still ended up in landfills.

stateswithbotttledeposit-rulesHere’s another example of the variation in recycling programs and efforts.  Only 11 states in the U.S. have some type of deposit  program for drink containers (water and soda bottles, aluminum cans, glass bottles.)

Programs such as these do make a difference.  Again, according to the EPA 2007 report, about 35% of all recovery of beverage containers comes from ten of the eleven states with deposit rules.  California, the eleventh state (where beverage distributors also pay a per container fee), is responsible for 20% of all recovered beverage containers in the United States!

Bottom line, averages or no, even the best recycling areas have opportunity for significant gains.

What can you do?  Visit your EPA Region websites and see what’s happening in your area.  Let them know what you think about the programs that are available and what’s missing.

Chad M. Wall


19 responses to “Recycling is not created equal across this nation.

  1. Living in suburban California, I forget that curbside recycling isn’t available everywhere. I know that I didn’t visit recycling centers before we had curbside service. The push has to be for more programs, nationwide. And funding for programs in rural areas as well… what do you suppose the chances are?

  2. Do you find it interesting that on the map provided the Southern USA lags behind the rest of the country in recycling? We don’t since we live in Georgia and have to drive our recycled items to another county to get rid of them properly. It is sometimes frustrating that our neighbors do not seem to care about recycling and reuse. They tend to throw everything in the garbage. Same holds true for composting. We do it but many in our area don’t.

    • Judy,
      I don’t know for sure, but it feels to me that this would be a good economy/jobs topic as well as good for the environment. A little note to our reps in Washington and the Administratin may be in order?

      I did find the lower availability of curbside recycling in the south interesting and curious. In fairness to the region, recycling effectiveness would be greatly reduced if curbside recycling was not available where I live.

      I heard from a start-up company CEO the other day who company makes kitchen/bath counter-tops from recycled glass, that there are states in the U.S. where less than 10% of glass bottles are recycled. The key is to make it easier for people to do the right thing and the data shows they will do it.

  3. Thanks for the information – very interesting and not surprising. I’m interested in locating information on recycling policies, e.g., by township, zip code or county. Do you have such a source?

    • Amy,
      There a may be some leads in the links I have in the post. I’m not sure if they will show what policies a particular area may have for recycling. The earth911 link will give you recycling centers by zip code and what they will collect The EPA region link will break down federal recycling regions first by areas of the US, then by regions within each state.

  4. This article has great visual references to the recycling options available by region. Also interesting to note, when deposits are required, recycling goes up. Could this indicate that successful recycling programs include manufacturers’ product responsibility? Cradle to grave?

  5. I believe so, Theresa. It’s my understanding that some recycling plants don’t take certain plastics in their collection. I believe that many manufacturers of these bottles have taken these in account and are making bottles now that can be recycled and reused. Pepsi, for example, is making a thinner plastic wall for its water bottle, thus reducing the possible chemical leakage when stored in high temperatures. Also, I notice that many soda drink companies now market recycling on their bottles, as a friendly reminder.

  6. My local curbside recycler only accepts plastics # 1 & 2. They no longer accept glass of any color because they can’t afford the machine that sorts by color or the manpower to sort broken pieces. It’s the nature of glass to break during transport. Residents can still recycle glass by driving to the recycling center to drop off. I wonder how many find this too inconvenient to participate. I sort at home and drive over with a load of glass every few weeks.

    The local Whole Foods claims to accept all plastics for recycling. The container-sized bins behind the store are always overflowing and mixed. I question if these items are truly recycled or landfilled after the shopper drives away. Is it legitimate or only a feel-good service for their eco-conscious shoppers? I have yet to find out the answer. But since I find so many consumer products still come in plastics # 3 and up, I take the time to sort what would otherwise go into my trash and load up about once a month to visit Whole Foods.

    In addition to the common recyclables accepted at curbside, there are so many other items that can be recycled but require special handler or drop off to do so. If it’s not available curbside, how many residents return their plastic bags to the grocery store, packing peanuts to UPS Store, yard waste, electronics or renovation materials? If it’s not easy, local, and uniform, and recycling becomes the responsibility of the resident, it’s less likely that it will occur.

    • Kerry and Theresa
      Thanks for the comments, they really help to validate the variation I observed in my research for the post. I know that for my locality, our curbside pickup (Livermore, CA) service has really expanded over the last few years. Our pickup (all recyclables in one container) are sorted at the center. I too have noticed that there are still many plastics #3 and up (container tops are often a different plastic, but even there, more of the tops and lids have the recycle triangle and resin type.) Our area allows all seven resin types to be recycled, again, lots of variation.
      I posted on this last week:

      It seems to me that not being able to afford the machine to sort glass by color is a perfect example of where stimulus money could be well spent. Funding for more curbside pickup (especially in the south for example) and greater granularity of what is recycled would also be great employment and resource recovery opportunities.

      And yes, I totally agree that deposit/refund for beverage containers makes a difference. I was stunned to find that only 11 states require this.

  7. I was stunned to know about the 11 states as well, since it seems as a logical solution. However, I know that most states co-mingle their recycling collection and separate it at the plants themselves. Technology may have play a part of why this is so. I know that the plants here have a machine that “weed” out the plastics and papers from the heavier materials. Also, as we progress during these current times, I found an interesting article from back in February that may explain it a little further.

  8. Kerry, Good article. There was also one in Recycling Resources (a little more technical and trade-oriented) that explained all the reclaimed commodities that are getting hit and by how much.

    The average consumer believes that it must be cheaper to use reclaimed materials to make new products since the material is already there. Little do they realize that recycling processes costs money to operate and implement (not to mention transportation, equipment, sorting, manpower, and then the process to produce something new)

    Sometimes reclaiming materials cost more than natural resources. Sometimes there is little or nothing that can be reused. It’s not cost effective to recycle it and there is no reuse market.

    When a recycling program can offset the cost of collections, then recycling programs can be sustainable. Take cardboard. The price of it as a reclaimed commodity has gone down so that in Cobb County, GA they have chosen to temporary compost it until they can again afford to have it processed for recycling. They still accept it from residents and have found a suitable channel for proper disposal rather than landfill.

    • Kerry
      Good article. I especially liked the line:
      “Incinerating 10,000 tons of waste creates one job, while recycling the same amount creates 36 jobs, according to the MPCA website.”

      If we were ever going to subsidize an industry to help it become a part of sourcing for materials, this is it.
      Chad M. Wall

  9. Sounds like a few of you have never visited a MRF, or “murf” (materials recycling facility). I recommend it highly – there you will see what it takes to separate out the different streams of materials and the technologies (high to low) as well as the costs these operations incur to yield salable commodities, not to mention the ups/downs of said commodities markets. I recommend to you very highly the self-education you can obtain by speaking and visiting with the other organizations in the chain from virgin raw materials – package manufacturing – package filling – MSW and recycling collection/sortation – commodities markets (Al, PET, paper, steel, glass). The recycling “value chain” does not operate in total isolation from the rest of the economy and it’s a great place to learn practical of economics as opposed to all the theoretical stuff.

    One of the issues with bottle deposits which have in the past been opposed by retailers is that the retailers bear the administrative costs of collection, refunds and storage of the containers (if aluminum or PET they may need to buy/lease a baler). Another matter retailers have objected to is the fate of unclaimed deposits – usually the unclaimed deposits go into the state’s escheat fund.

  10. Mark, Montgomery County is one of a few communities that can claim to have outstanding recycling programs. Our past NE Recycling Manager and current PSA director both attest to that as residents. And the county won a Leadership Recycling Award a few years ago for their participation in rechargeable battery recycling.

    The point of the initial discussion is that recycling options is not uniform across the country. There is the operational side of the industry and then the perception of the average consumer, the residents doing the recycling. Supply and demand.

    Some communities find a way to do it better than others. You’re lucky to live in one of the communities that offer great programs to your residents. Wish it were uniform and reproducible across the country.

    • Mark. An excellent idea for me at least. I will take myself to task to do exactly that.

      And I will also look at Montgomery County’s program. What part of the U.S?
      Chad M. Wall

  11. Theresa – Montgomery County does indeed do well with solid waste and recycling programs. This of course comes at a cost (in our property taxes) and the mandates that are imposed upon multi family dwellings, commercial buildings and businesses. But they do seem to do it right, and one of my County Govt colleagues does a bang up job the web site,

  12. Recycling percentages will increase as raw material prices increase, meaning, the value of cans/plastics/etc. in your bin will increase, become more profitable, and thereby foster the free market system. Dumps are already being tapped for methane gas, and I think the overall value of post-consumer products will overtake the cost of manufacturing them from scratch… at least for a time, before technology finds an even more efficient way, for example, buying things like bottled water will become moot when water purification systems at home, in the office and the general public areas become standard. Take TV dinners as another example. If we start making the trays biodegradable, like they do with wheat-based *pseudo-plastic* forks and knives, the landfills will become increasingly irrelevant.

  13. Antenna,
    Good points and positive thinking. I agree with your estimations. This current lull in the economic situation is exactly that in my opinion, a lull and things will take off again for recycling.
    Chad M. Wall

  14. Pingback: Curbside Recycling – Local Variation Gets Smaller « Eco-Footprint Solutions

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