Recycling in the United States

This article examines recycling in the United States. In 2014, the recycling/composting rate for municipal solid waste in the US was 34.6%.[1] Since there is no national law that mandates recycling, state and local governments often introduce their own recycling requirements. A number of U.S. states, including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont have passed laws that establish deposits or refund values on beverage containers while other jurisdictions rely on recycling goals or landfill bans of recyclable materials.

National legislation

On a national level, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees a variety of waste issues. These include regulation of hazardous wastes, landfill regulations, and setting recycling goals.

State and local legislation

More specific recycling legislation is localized through city or state governments. State regulation falls into two major categories: landfill bans and recycling goals. Landfill bans make it illegal to dispose of enumerated items in a landfill. Most often these items include yard waste, oil, and recyclables easily collected in curbside recycling programs. States with landfill bans of recyclables include Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan,[2] and North Carolina.[3] Other states focus on recycling goals. These include California and Illinois. One ways in which some states encourage recycling of specific drink containers is through the passage of a bottle bill.

A number of U.S. states, such as California, Hawaii, Oregon, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Iowa, Michigan, and New York have passed laws that establish deposits or refund values on beverage containers in order to promote reuse and recycling. Most are five cents per can or bottle. Michigan's has maintained a 10 cent deposit value for bottles and cans since 1976.[4]

Mandatory recycling

Some cities, such as Seattle, and states like Connecticut,[5] have created mandatory recycling laws that may fine citizens who throw away a certain percentage of recyclable materials in their garbage waste. Vermont also employed a landfill ban of recyclable materials, food and yard waste, and wood.[6] There are also voluntary programs and educational programs to increase recycling where it is not mandated by law.

Disposal of recyclables in the garbage is prohibited from households, businesses and apartments. For businesses, that would include prohibiting the disposal of cardboard, paper, and yard waste in the garbage. For apartments and houses, disposal of glass, paper, cardboard, aluminum, and plastic in the garbage would be prohibited. With businesses and apartments, if garbage collectors find more than 10 percent of the container filled with recyclables, they will leave a tag. On the third tag, the business or apartment tenants will receive a $50 fine. However, households do not face the risk of being fined. If trash collectors find over 10 percent of their garbage contains recyclables, they will leave a tag asking the household to separate the garbage and recyclables for collection the next week.[7]

Criticism of mandatory recycling

In a 1996 article in The New York Times, John Tierney claimed that government mandated recycling wastes more resources than it saves.[8] Tierney's article received a referenced critique from the Environmental Defense Fund, which noted that "the article relied heavily on quotes and information supplied by a group of consultants and think tanks that have strong ideological objections to recycling or a vested financial interest in opposing it".[9]

In 2003, Daniel K. Benjamin (a professor of economics at Clemson University) published a paper through the Property and Environment Research Center that reiterated many of the points brought up in the New York Times article,[8] backing them up with a detailed inquiry into the recycling industry of the US.[10] In 2010, he followed up on that with an updated look into the recycling policies of the US, finding that not much has changed.[11]

Financial implications

When the recycling industry was in its infancy in the United States, the financial costs of collecting, depositing, and processing recyclables exceeded that of trash disposal. Some opponents of recycling argued that state support for recycling may be more financially expensive in the short term than alternatives such as landfill disposal. For example, recycling efforts in New York City cost $57 million per year in 2002[12] and by 2015 it cost the city $300 more to recycle each ton of waste than to dump it in landfill.[13] To refute this argument, people pointed out that the social benefits to society from recycling compensate for any difference in cost. Landfilling waste is an inefficient use of resources, contributes to global warming through the release of methane into the atmosphere when unharvested or incompletely harvested, and by the pollution of groundwater and waterways. The long term financial and social costs of pollution caused by landfilling waste are often not taken into consideration.

However, in many regions of the country, there are now an economic incentives to recycle. As early as 2003, Fort Worth Texas was making $1,000,000 from their recycling program.[14] Similarly, Waukesha County's recycling program in Wisconsin began operating with positive revenues in 2004.[15] Most recently, Waukesha County began receiving a $6.50 per ton bonus for recyclables coming into their private MRF (Materials Recycling Facility). Combining that with the average revenue from the sale of the materials minus the long-term costs incurred if the items had been landfilled, the average total lost revenue (county's share) for recyclables thrown in the landfill is $112.50.[16]

Recycling status

Recycling statistics

Recycling statistics (ca. 2014)[17]

  • An average of approximately 258 million tons of trash is generated by the United States in 2014
    • 34.6% was recycled
    • 12.8% was combusted for energy recovery
    • 52.6% was landfilled
  • 4.4 pounds (2.0 kg) of trash is generated per capita per day in the United States

Recycled materials going to landfill

The New York Times reported in May 2018 that in somes cases, 25% of all recyclables collected are sent to landfill.[18]

Recycling by material type

Recycling rates vary by material and product type. [17]

  • 64.7% of Paper
  • 33.0% of Steel
  • 26.0% of Glass
  • 19.8% of Aluminum
  • 9.5% of Plastics


Electronic waste or e-waste describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. Used electronics which are destined for reuse, resale, salvage, recycling, or disposal are also considered e-waste. Informal processing of e-waste in developing countries can lead to adverse human health effects and environmental pollution.

Electronic scrap components, such as CPUs, contain potentially harmful components such as lead, cadmium, beryllium, or brominated flame retardants. Recycling and disposal of e-waste may involve significant risk to workers and communities in developed countries[19] and great care must be taken to avoid unsafe exposure in recycling operations and leaking of materials such as heavy metals from landfills and incinerator ashes.[20]

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is important to dispose of electronics via recycling because,"Electronic products are made from valuable resources and materials, including metals, plastics, and glass, all of which require energy to mine and manufacture. Donating or recycling consumer electronics conserves our natural resources and avoids air and water pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions that are caused by manufacturing virgin materials."[21] Consumer recycling options include donating equipment directly to organizations in need, sending devices directly back to their original manufacturers, or getting components to a convenient recycler or refurbisher.[22]


The Environmental Protection Agency reports 290 million scrap tires were generated in 2003.[23] Of the 290 million, 45 million of these scrap tires were used to make automotive and truck tire re-treads.[24] With landfills minimizing their acceptance of whole tires and the health and environmental risks of stockpiling tires, many new markets have been created for scrap tires. Growing markets exist for a majority of scrap tires produced every year, supported by state and local government. Tires are also often recycled for use on basketball courts and new shoe products. However, material recovered from waste tires, known as "crumb" is generally only a cheap "filler" material and is rarely used in high volumes.

Tires are not desired at landfills, due to their large volumes and 75% void space, which quickly consumes valuable space. As of 2003, 38 states banned whole tires from landfills, 35 allowed shredded tires, 11 banned all tires from landfills, 17 allowed processed tires in mono-fills, and 8 states had no restrictions on scrap tires in landfills.[25]

The United States has decreased the number of waste tires in storage from 700-800 million in 1994, down to 275 million tires in 2004 primarily due to state scrap management programs.[26]

Local government

US state laws and regulations dealing with scrap tires are currently enacted in 48 states. Here are some common features of state programs that deal with scrap tires: source of funding for the program; licensing or registration of scrap tire haulers, processors, and end users; manifests for scrap tire shipments; limitations on who may handle scrap tires; financial assurance requirements for scrap tire handlers; and market development activities.[27] Some state programs are now supported by fees charged to the consumer at purchase or disposal of each tire. These fees, sometimes called “tipping fees”, help to support recycling costs. When the disposal rates charged to consumers are set high, this, in turn, discourages landfill disposal, a simple solution encouraging more affordable tire recycling programs.

Early history

The first recorded mass recycling program in the U.S., "Ban The Can", was conceived and executed in 1970 by Ruth "Pat" Webb in Honolulu Hawaii. She organized military and civilian volunteers to collect over 9 tons of metal cans from the roadways and highways of Oahu. The metal cans were later recycled into steel reinforcement bars to be used in local construction projects.[28]

The Stanolind Recycling Plant was in operation as early 1947.[29] Another early recycling mill was Waste Techniques, built in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania in 1972. Waste Techniques was sold to Frank Keel in 1978, and resold to BFI in 1981. Woodbury, New Jersey was the first city in the United States to mandate recycling.[30] Led by Donald Sanderson who was President of Woodbury City Council and Woodbury Recycling Committee in the early 1970s, the idea of towing a "recycling" trailer behind a waste management vehicle to enable the collection of trash and recyclable material at the same time emerged. Other towns and cities soon followed suit, and today many cities in the U.S. make recycling a requirement.

In 1987, the Mobro 4000 barge hauled garbage from New York to North Carolina; where it was denied. It was then sent to Belize; where it was denied as well. Finally, the barge returned to New York and the garbage was incinerated. The incident led to heated discussions in the media about waste disposal and recycling. The incident is often referred to as igniting the recycling "hysteria" of the 1990s.[10][31]

Recycling education

Integrating recycling into K-12 educational system has become a goal for many educators. Usually, it is integrated into science or social studies classrooms. This is due to its inclusion in the national education standards for both of these subject areas.[32] Common areas that recycling is integrated into the curriculum include areas such as the study of natural resources, general environmental units, soil units, water units, community units, economic units, and geography units. Although interest is growing, major textbook publishers do not always include recycling in a textbook so teachers are left to supplement the textbooks with outside curriculum to meet the national standards. For example, in a unit about trees or natural resources teachers could include supplemental curriculum about recycling because in the textbook it is never explicitly covered.[33] Non-profit organizations as well as governmental organizations have created supplemental curriculum for teachers to fill this void. Some purely non-profit groups include the Center for a New American Dream and Be SMART.[34] Other creators of curriculum include governmental offices. Some of these include Oregon,[35] California,[36] and Waukesha County, Wisconsin.[37] Also, some non-profit organizations have partnered with sections of the government to collaborate on educational materials. For example, the Keystone Center partnered with the United States Department of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory to create curriculum on global warming.[38]

America Recycles Day

America Recycles Day (ARD) is the only nationally recognized day dedicated to encouraging Americans to recycle and buy recycled products. ARD is celebrated annually on November 15. The World Recycling Day celebrated in most countries, though falls on July 8. Thousands of events are held across the U.S. to raise awareness about the importance of recycling and to encourage American to sign personal pledges to recycle and buy products made from recycled materials.[39][40]

Started by the recycling sector organization National Recycling Coalition in 1997, America Recycles Day has been a program of national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful since 2009. As the managing entity of America Recycles Day, Keep America Beautiful provides promotional and marketing support and resources to a network of local event organizers. It is sponsored by private and public entities and the EPA.

Although America may not enjoy much of a reputation for environmentalism on the global stage, in some US cities, recycling levels are much higher than, for example, in the UK.[39]

See also


  1. "Materials and Waste Management in the United States Key Facts and Figures". Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures. EPA. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  2. Report from Minnesota comparing area states landfill laws
  3. NC Division of Waste Management - Solid Waste Program
  5. "DEEP: Recycling Regulations and Statutes".
  6. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  7. Langston, Jennifer. "Mandatory recycling working well". Seattle pi. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  8. 1 2 Tierney, John (June 30, 1996). "Recycling Is Garbage". New York: New York Times. p. 3. Retrieved 2008-02-28.
  9. Richard A. Dension, Ph.D.; John F. Ruston (July 16, 1996). "Anti-Recycling Myths" (PDF). Environmental Defense Fund.
  10. 1 2 Benjamin, Daniel K. "Eight Great Myths of Recycling" (PDF). Property & Environment Research Center Policy Series. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  11. Benjamin, Daniel K. "Recycling Myths Revisited" (PDF). Property & Environment Research Center Policy Series. Retrieved 17 September 2011.
  12. Logomasini, A.(2002) Forced Recycling Is a Waste The Wall Street Journal, March 19
  13. John Tierney (3 October 2015). "The Reign of Recycling". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 June 2018. In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead
  14. Recycling Made Easy and Profitable. National Recycling Coalition.
  15. Waukesha County Materials Recycling Facility Report.
  16. Newsletter 2008
  17. 1 2 "Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Fact Sheet" (PDF). EPA. EPA. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
  18. Livia Albeck-Ripka (29 May 2018). "Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not". The New York Times. Retrieved 6 June 2018. Approximately 25 percent of all recycling picked up by Waste Management is contaminated to the point that it is sent to landfills
  19. Sakar, Anne. "Dad brought home lead, kids got sick".
  20. Sthiannopkao S, Wong MH. (2012) Handling e-waste in developed and developing countries: Initiatives, practices, and consequences. Sci Total Environ.
  21. EPA, OSWER, ORCR, PMCAO, US. "Electronics Donation and Recycling". Retrieved 2016-01-22.
  22. "Kroll Ontrack Offers Advice for Properly Recycling Your Electronic Devices: With the Rise in Popularity of Electronic Device Recycling, Leading Data Recovery Provider Offers Tips for Protecting Valuable Business and Personal Data While Responsibly Disposing of Old Electronics". Business Wire. 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2009-03-17.
  23. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Management of Scrap Tires. 3 January 2007. 14 February 2007
  24. Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Recycling tires. 9 August 2005. 26 February 2007
  25. Rubber Manufacturers Association 2003
  26. Rubber Manufacturers Association 2004
  27. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Management of Scrap Tires. 3 January 2007. 14 February 2007
  28. 1970 Navy Times Article
  29. Retrieved 30 December 2016. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  30. "History of Recycling". Retrieved 24 July 2012.
  31. "The truth about recycling". The Economist. June 7, 2007.
  32. National Science Education Standards National Council for the Social Studies standards
  33. Foss Curriculum Guide.
  34. Be SMART (Save Money and Reduce Trash)
  35. Oregon DEQ
  36. California Dept. of Conservation
  37. Waukesha County Teacher's Resources Page.
  38. Kestone Center Curriculum
  39. 1 2 US raises waste awareness with "America Recycles Day",, Retrieved 15.11.06
  40. George W. Bush Proclamation on America Recycles Day Archived 2009-03-29 at the Wayback Machine.,, Retrieved 24.11.06
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