Skip to main content
Brown paper bag that is 100% recyclable and reusable on a counter.
Recycling News

 | Recycling News

The State of Recycling in the U.S.

 by Jack McLellan,

How much are we actually recycling?

Recyclable materials are commonly found in everyday items such as packages, water bottles, and food containers.

But how much of our recyclable items get fully processed and reused? According to a report by The Recycling Partnership, not much. In fact, only about 21% of all residential recycled materials end up getting recycled. The rest are either thrown in the garbage and sent to a landfill after use (76%) or lost at a material recycling facility (3%).

This number is alarmingly low. Recycling is vital for creating a circular and sustainable economy. If the materials aren’t even making it to material recovery facilities, that hurts local economies and recycling businesses.

Key Takeaways and Findings

Make Packaging 100% Recyclable

In 2018, 28% of all MSW products consisted of packaging. Making packaging easier to recycle has been a key initiative of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Laws in the United States at a state level. EPR laws are regulations that hold producers responsible for the entire lifetime of their goods.

A major objective for increasing household recycling is making packaging 100% recyclable. According to a survey by How2Recycle, 44% of companies reviewed had recyclable packaging. EPR laws introduced in four states require packaging to be made of 100% recyclable materials, and more states are working on introducing EPR laws.

Making all packaging recyclable is beneficial for both consumers and recycling facilities. It makes it significantly easier for consumers to toss things in the recycling bin, and if more materials are recycled, waste plants receive more materials they can process and resell for processing and reuse.

Make Recycling Accessible to All Households

According to The Recycling Partnership’s report, 73% of households have easy access to recycling services. However, most families with access to recycling services are single-family homes at an 85% access rate. Multifamily homes, on the other hand, only have a 37% access rate.

Unsurprisingly, states investing more in recycling access for all households have higher recycling rates. However, even with access to recycling services, we have a long way to go regarding household recycling participation.

Households Need to Engage in Recycling More

Even if every household in the United States had access to recycling services, we would still need to convince people to throw stuff in their recycling bins. In their report, The Recycling Partnership estimated that, on average, 59% of people with access to recycling programs actually participate in recycling.

Increasing consumer recycling behavior requires communication and instruction. Make it clear what can be recycled and how easy it is to recycle using clear, understandable instructions.

If you’d like to learn more, we go into greater detail in another blog.

Recycling Facilities Should be Able to Process & Sell More

The Recycling Partnership estimated that Recycling facilities sort and process approximately 87% of the recyclables they receive. They could sort and process up to 95% of materials in an optimal system. Items that are not sorted and processed are thrown out and cut into material recovery facilities’ profit margins. It’s quite literally throwing away money.

Non-bottle PET plastics and film/flexibles (such as shopping bags, packaging, and textiles) are the most commonly missed recyclable goods. This is due to how difficult these materials are to handle when they’re brought to recycling facilities. However, as better recycling technology is developed, it has become easier to handle flexible plastics. Recycling equipment like the DE-STONER® Air Classifier can separate ultra-light plastics like shopping bags and film from heavier ones without the need for manual separation, especially in single-stream facilities.

Make it Easier for MRFs to Sell Recovered Materials

Even if we follow all of the above steps perfectly, recycling facilities still need somewhere to sell their recovered materials for reuse. Right now, some facilities cannot accept certain materials because the cost to recycle them is greater than the return they would receive on selling them. That, or local governments will have to subsidize these materials. Either way, we need to support recycling facilities better so it’s easier and more profitable for them to recycle all recyclable materials.

What Can We Do?

A large number of missed materials are due to flex plastics and packaging. Consequently, we need to expand EPR laws. EPR laws require companies that produce products to take financial and environmental responsibility for these products for their entire lifetime—from creation to when they’re thrown in recycling.

EPR laws have existed for a long time for things like electronics, which are notoriously more difficult to recycle. PPP (paper and packaging products) are another subject to more recent EPR laws in a few states (CA, CO, ME, OR) However, we need to start introducing EPR laws nationwide for a greater impact.

Benefits of EPR Laws

EPR laws do more than just increase local recycling rates. Some of the other benefits include:

  • Financially supporting the recycling industry and allowing recycling facilities to increase profitability while incentivizing local recycling.
  • We’re projected to recycle an additional 2.4 million tons of PPP materials in the four states that have introduced EPR laws.
  • When companies do not comply with EPR laws, they’re charged fines, which are used to bolster the recycling system further through subsidies to recycling facilities, engagement programs, and more.
  • Allowing recycling businesses to hire more workers and support local economies.
  • Increasing demand for recycling facilities nationwide.

The Future of Recycling

While significant progress has been made in improving recycling in the U.S., much work remains. By introducing EPR laws and improving the amount of materials MRFs can receive and process, we can improve recycling rates in the U.S. while strengthening the recycling industry and continuing to make it profitable. If you want to increase your recycling efficiency, contact General Kinematics, and we’ll help you increase your material recovery rate.

Jack McLellan

Marketing Coordinator

Jack specializes in creating compelling digital marketing content such as social media, blog posts, newsletters, and more. He works with General Kinematics industry experts to develop educational content for the foundry, recycling, mining, and aggregate industries.