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Report Shows Only 21% of U.S. Residential Recyclables are Captured, Points to Policy and Investment as Immediate Solutions

Most of Loss Due to Lack of Access to Recycling Service and Insufficient Communication

WASHINGTON, D.C. Jan. 10, 2024 – Identifying significant, but fixable gaps in the U.S. residential recycling system, a new report from The Recycling Partnership (“The Partnership”), a non-governmental organization committed to building a better recycling system, finds that only 21% of residential recyclables are being recycled.  The report shows how Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies and proactive industry investment can close these gaps. Under EPR, private industry funds improvements to the recycling system through packaging fees.

State of Recycling: Present and Future of Residential Recycling in the U.S.”, published today, compares the current state of residential recycling with five requirements that The Partnership has determined are necessary for of a truly efficient system. Data from the report shows where the gaps are greatest, and where policy, investment, and action will have the largest impact. The report is based on multi-year field measurement studies conducted across the U.S. and The Partnership’s National Database; it uses an updated methodology for determining recycling rates that tracks materials throughout the system.

“Every year we trash 79% of recyclables but we don’t need to,” said Keefe Harrison, Chief Executive Officer of The Recycling Partnership. “Fixing recycling is completely doable – it just takes a clear plan and a true sense of urgency.  This report outlines that plan. Our data provides an actionable roadmap for policymakers, companies, communities, and the public to ensure that recycling reaches its full potential to reduce waste and protect natural resources.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • Every material type is under-recycled: seven out of ten cardboard boxes, three out of four milk jugs, four out of five steel cans, three out of four tons of mixed paper, and seven out of ten glass, aluminum cans, and PET bottles are lost to trash in homes. Why? Not enough households have recycling services and of those that do, communication about how to recycle is insufficient. Specifically:
    • 76% of recyclables are lost to trash in homes, underscoring the importance of providing all households with recycling services and engaging residents with good communication about how to recycle locally.
    • 73% of all U.S. households have recycling access. Broken down between single and multifamily homes: 85% of single-family homes have access, but only 37% of multifamily homes have access. This means that nearly 20 million households (63% of all multifamily homes) are effectively excluded from recycling.
    • 43% of households participate in recycling. with non-participation due to both lack of recycling access and insufficient communication about how to recycle locally. Of the 73% that have recycling access, 59% use their recycling service. But even those that participate do not recycle everything they could ­- 57% of recyclable materials are put in recycling containers. The report also notes that lack of public trust in recycling affects participation – if people don’t think their recyclables are being recycled, they are less inclined to participate.
  • Five states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, and Nebraska) have residential recycling rates below 10%; only four states (California, Connecticut, New York and Oregon,) have residential recycling rates at 30% or above. The report estimates that EPR policies would raise recycling rates above 60% for these states, noting that California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon are in the process of implementing EPR (which takes 3-5 years following passage of legislation).
  • Eleven states (California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia) lose over 1 million tons of recyclables annually, this includes states with relatively high recycling rates. The report shows how data-driven, local investment solutions are key to overhauling the U.S. recycling system.

“Each link of the recycling system is interconnected, so we need to close all the gaps,” said Cody Marshall, The Recycling Partnership’s Chief System Optimization Officer. “But we can make the greatest strides by investing in access to recycling services, and communication, and outreach so that people can recycle from their homes and fully participate.”

The report identifies key strategies to address recycling system gaps, noting that EPR drives improvement in each of the five requirements of an efficient system and private industry has much to gain by proactively investing in recycling system improvements. The report calls on:

  • policymakers at the federal and state level to adopt EPR;
  • companies to:
    • invest in designing all packaging for recyclability (sources indicate that less than half of plastic packaging is recyclable today),
    • fund improvements in the system where the gaps are greatest, such as access to recycling services and communication about how to recycle locally,
    • leverage the opportunities in regions of greatest material loss; and
  • state and community recycling leaders to turn the report data into action, especially through communication, education, and public engagement in recycling.

The report implores readers to act with a sense of urgency. Broadscale system change takes time to implement – the time to start is now.

To read the report, please visit recyclingpartnership.org/residential-recycling-report

Read the Report

Notable Comments

“Investing in recycling infrastructure capacity and access continues to be a critical part of accelerating the transition to a circular economy and keeping valuable materials in circulation. The Recycling Partnership’s State of Recycling Report shows us, through comprehensive and detailed data, where investment dollars can have the greatest impact. The report identifies specific states and parts of the recycling system with the greatest needs and largest opportunities to drive positive change throughout the U.S. recycling system.”

– Ron Gonen, Founder & CEO, Closed Loop Partners

“Evidence that America’s failing recycling system is all around us, with single-use plastics contaminating our waste streams, overwhelming our landfills, and polluting our beaches and waterways. To tackle this crisis, we must make less plastic in the first place and better collect and manage the plastics we do use. Through extensive data and analysis, this report shows that extended producer responsibility policies are critical to effecting systemic change.”

– Nicholas Mallos, Vice President of Conservation, Ocean Plastics Ocean Conservancy

“Our recycling system is not producing the results we need to reduce the impact of pollution on communities and environments. Through transformative policies like Extended Producer Responsibility – as outlined in this report – we can shift to using products that are recyclable, invest in local communities and do more with less packaging and plastic. Consumers need to be empowered to recycle and use materials responsibly, and they can’t do that without the corporate responsibility provided by EPR.”

– Erin Simon, Vice President and Head of Plastic Waste + Business, World Wildlife Fund

“The Recycling Partnership’s State of Recycling Report magnifies the fact that U.S. residential recycling is not living up to its intended potential.  Policymakers and stakeholders from across the packaging industry’s supply chain must act with urgency if we want to capture the tremendous environmental and economic benefits of recycling.”

– Daniel W. Fisher, Chairman & CEO of Ball Corporation

“Recycling Partnership’s State of Recycling Report is a well-researched and informed baseline for recycling system change in the U.S. More importantly, it serves as a guide for which investments and actions by both the public and private sectors can have the greatest impact.”

– Monique Oxender, Chair, Recycling Partnership Board of Directors & Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, Keurig Dr Pepper

“Our world is interconnected, and as we face extreme weather driven by climate change, it is critical that we focus on improving our U.S. residential recycling system and addressing the role it plays in carbon emissions. GreenBlue is proud to be a close partner with The Recycling Partnership to promote and enable recycling system success.”

– Paul Nowak, Executive Director, GreenBlue