The Current State of Recycling in America

In comparison to other countries around the world, the U.S. comes in at a very mediocre nationwide recycling rate of just 34%. While many factors affect recycling in the U.S., one large cause for our “middle-of-the-road” rate is the lack of uniformity among recycling facilities. There are approximately 9,800 incompatible recycling systems in the U.S., all of which follow different rules and regulations.

Because the US does not have a nationwide recycling program, some states are contributing far more than others to the 34% rate. For states like California and Oregon, which have very strong recycling rates, it’s clear that it’s their rigorous recycling laws and fines which are driving the public to recycle. Some regulations include: mandatory commercial recycling, statewide mandatory recycling regulations, container deposit laws, and more.

In addition to the lack of laws in the states, the non-uniformity of recycling facilities does not allow for a maximum recovery rate. With each local government in charge of their recycling efforts, infrastructure has become outdated and can’t handle the change to the nation’s waste stream, including the decline in newspapers and the increase in plastics. Additionally, there just aren’t enough laws or incentives for the general public, or public education needed to motivate citizens to recycle correctly. These factors working together have led us to this low rate of recycling.

When observing the habits of other countries such as Sweden, which is very close to “Zero Waste,” it becomes clear that the U.S. is not putting enough of an emphasis on this growing epidemic. It is true that part of Sweden’s success toward Zero Waste is their Waste to Energy program. However, before anything is sent to the incinerator, the maximum amount of recyclables are recovered and given a new life. This is attainable because of Sweden’s way of separating recyclables:

“Swedish households keep separating their newspapers, plastic, metal, glass, electric appliances, light bulbs and batteries. Many municipalities also encourage consumers to separate food waste. And all of this is reused, recycled or composted.”


In the U.S. most municipalities have adopted a single stream system of collecting recyclables. Through various case studies, single stream has proven to be less than satisfactory with undesirable results. Sweden puts recycling first, and not just at a residential level. According to Swedish law, corporations are held accountable to encourage and enable recycling for the public. Producers are required to handle all costs relevant to the collection, recycling, or appropriate disposal of their products.

The question is: if Sweden is doing so great with recycling, why isn’t the U.S. emulating their systems and laws? The answer is that it would cost a lot of time, money and change to create the same circumstances in which the U.S. could mirror Sweden’s systems, including creating nationwide rules and regulations, up-to-date facilities, multiple bins for paper, plastic, glass, compost, etc., public education on what items go in which bins, and more.

While people are willing to recycle, it hasn’t been established as something that simply must be done. For example, most people do not litter. Why? Because most states fine you for it, give you community service, and/or even send you to jail. If we cared as much about diverting recyclables from landfills as we do about littering, we would have similar laws in place. With landfills filling up across the country and the U.S. waste problem escalating, it is time for someone to take action and put us on track for a higher diversion rate.

For a more in depth look at the current challenges affecting the recycling industry in America, listen to a recent episode of the Diane Rehm show titled, “New Challenges to Recycling in the United States.”