Why Only 34% of Americans Recycle

Americans don’t recycle because too often they can’t. And even communities where recycling is a deep commitment are paying a premium to do it, rather than dump it as garbage. The whole ecosystem needs to be revamped.

“We’ve been telling the public a long time to do the right thing and recycle,” says Keefe Harrison, CEO and founder of advocacy group The Recycling Partnership. “But only half of Americans can recycle at home as easily as they can throw something away. We only have a 34% recycling rate, and communities are struggling to pay their recycling bills.”

The 6-year-old non-profit she runs works with all parts of the recycling ecosystem–companies that produce things, the ones that operate recycling infrastructure, and about 1500 American communities. “We believed they needed to be more connected,” she says. “That’s the circular economy.”

But Harrison worries that the pandemic may alter America’s recycling equation. Towns pay around $100 per ton to companies that take away paper and plastic to recycle them. But the cost to dump a ton of waste into the average landfill is only about $47. So, she says, communities “have to choose to do it…because they believe it’s important. But if they’re stretched financially because of the pandemic, they may have a harder time.”

Happily, major investment is going into recycling facilities, which should improve the economics. Harrison says the country has recently created more than $4 billion in new paper mill capacity to handle recycled content in the U.S., and billions have also been invested recently in new plastics recycling capacity.

I asked her about China’s recent tightening of restrictions on receiving U.S. recyclables, but she doesn’t place blame there. “If we’re forcing trash on other countries to make it happen, are we really making progress?” she asks. “People can easily say it’s China’s fault, but if recycling is working against cheap plastic and cheap landfills, we’ve got to work on that. It’s an economic problem.”

To create the new plants, buy the trucks, and otherwise build a national recycling infrastructure that is sufficient for the whole country, would cost about $10 billion, the Partnership calculates. But meanwhile, it is working hard with companies that produce things, like Nestle Waters, to help them do the right thing. “Nestle is walking the walk,” she says.

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