Recycling Across the Nation
The act of recycling has become a social imperative. Across the United States, recycling rates continue to grow. More and more municipal governments and private companies are providing communities with recycling programs that are having a positive impact on the volume our nation’s solid waste stream.
Americans are currently recycling more than a third of all municipal solid waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011, Americans recycled 66 million tons of paper, cans and bottles and composted another 21 million tons of yard waste, for a total of 87 million tons. This total amount of waste recovered for recycling or composting is increased from 69.3 million tons in 2000, 33.2 million tons in 1990, and 14.5 million tons in 1980. (These amounts do not include backyard composting.)
In the United States, recycling is increasingly becoming one of the greatest environmental success stories, and Americans should be proud that today we recycle about three times as much of our waste as we did in the 1980s. Our recycling success is shared.
What is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of using discarded materials to produce new products. Recycling prevents the waste of potentially useful materials, reduces the consumption of virgin raw materials, reduces energy consumption, reduces pollution, lowers greenhouse gas emissions, and decreases the amount of waste deposited in landfills. Commonly recycled materials include glass, paper, aluminum, steel, and plastics. In addition, specific products such as fluorescent light bulbs, printer cartridges and household electronics are able to be recycled. America's solid waste and recycling industry has played a key role in building, managing and innovating the national infrastructure that is enabling the growth of recycling in the United States.
Benefits of Recycling
Recycling provides tangible benefits to our communities, environment, government and individual households.
Recycling allows us to conserve vital natural material resources that continue to become scarcer. The resources (water, energy, and other materials) needed to make a new product using recycled materials – are much less than when using virgin raw materials to make products. Through the act of recycling, we also reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills, conserving landfill capacity.
Cleaner Land, Air and Water
Recycling means cleaner land, air and water. Manufacturing products using recycled materials cuts greenhouse gas emissions, which are known to contribute to climate change. For example, by recycling nearly 7 million tons of metals (including aluminum, steel and mixed metals), Americans eliminated greenhouse gas emissions totaling nearly 6.5 million metric tons of carbon equivalent, an amount equal to removing more than 5 million cars from the road for one year.
Recycling also helps Americans save money by reducing energy use. For example:
- Energy costs drop about 2-3% for every 10% recycled glass used in the manufacturing process, according to the Glass Packaging Institute. Recycling one ton of paper would save enough energy to power the average American home for six months, according to the EPA. Recycling steel requires 60 percent less energy than is necessary to make new steel, according to Keep America Beautiful.
- Recycling plastics uses as much as 70 percent less energy than is necessary to make the same plastics; and
- Recycling aluminum uses 95 percent less energy than is necessary to make new aluminum.
Collection and Processing Innovations
The National Waste & Recycling Association and our members are committed to supporting communities in increasing their recycling rates. Our member companies are developing improved collection and sorting technologies, which are able to process more materials more efficiently. The industry is also investing in building material recovery facilities (MRFs) with greater output by using advanced engineering and technology. And our companies continue to educate their customers on the benefits of recycling. Here are some of the innovations that have increased recycling rates and are helping to make recycling an economically viable option for many communities.
Curbside Pickup Programs
Curbside pickup programs have been extremely important in positioning recycling as both easy and convenient, thus increasing participation rates. According to the EPA, as of 2011, 9,800 curbside programs served 70 percent of our country. In 1968, only two curbside programs, Madison, WI, and San Francisco, existed and they only collected newspaper.
Single-stream recycling is another major innovation. This process allows for everything — aluminum cans, cereal boxes, the daily newspaper and the margarine tub — to be placed into the same recycling bin, making the act of recycling easier and more convenient, again increasing participation rates. These “comingled” materials are then sorted at highly-advanced MRFs and/or by recycling professionals.
More Fuel-Efficient Collection Vehicles
Garbage and recycling trucks have become the most rapidly growing alternative fuel truck sector in the nation. By adopting innovations in garbage and recycling collection truck technologies, America's solid waste and recycling industry offers quality-of-life advantages to the communities and customers that they serve. These advanced trucks are using less fuel, reducing operating costs, emitting less particulate matter and nitrogen oxide and helping improve air quality.