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The Recycling Partnership report identifies significant gaps in U.S. residential recycling systems

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The report shows how Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies and proactive industry investment can close the current gaps in U.S. residential recycling systems. Adobe Stock Images

Identifying significant but fixable gaps in the U.S. residential recycling system, a new report from The Recycling Partnership finds that only 21 percent 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, the private industry funds improvements to the recycling system through packaging fees.

State of Recycling: Present and Future of Residential Recycling in the U.S. compares the current state of residential recycling with five requirements that The Recycling 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 Recycling Partnership's U.S. database; it uses an updated methodology for determining recycling rates that tracks materials throughout the system.

"Every year we trash 79 percent 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."

What are the key findings of the State of Recycling: Present and Future of Residential Recycling in the U.S. 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 percent 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 percent of all U.S. households have recycling access. Broken down between single and multifamily homes: 85 percent of single-family homes have access, but only 37 percent of multifamily homes have access. This means that nearly 20 million households (63 percent of all multifamily homes) are effectively excluded from recycling.
    • 43 percent of households participate in recycling. with non-participation due to both a lack of recycling access and insufficient communication about how to recycle locally. Of the 73 percent that have recycling access, 59 percent use their recycling service. But even those who participate do not recycle everything they can – 57 percent of recyclable materials are put in recycling containers. The report also notes that a 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 percent; only four states (California, Connecticut, New York, and Oregon,) have residential recycling rates at 30 percent or above. The report estimates that EPR policies would raise recycling rates above 60 percent for these states, noting that California, Colorado, Maine, and Oregon are in the process of implementing EPR (which takes 3 to 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 levels 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.

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