The 5 Most Interesting Things We Learned About Recycling from a Pew Study

Did you know that the gap between the state that recycles the most and the one that recycles the least is a whopping 49 percent? Or that almost every lead-acid car battery in this country gets recycled? We learned this — and a whole lot more — by poring over the results from a recent Pew Research Center survey. Here, we present a handful of the most interesting tidbits. You may be surprised to find that what holds true in your neighborhood is vastly different a state or two away.

 

1. Recycling Rates Vary Extremely Widely Among Different States

The Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University estimates that 389 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in the United States in 2011. Of that, 23 percent was recycled, 6 percent composted and 64 percent wound up in landfills.

That’s just an average, though — among the states, there’s a huge variance in recycling rates. The Pew survey found that in 2011, California (53 percent), Maine (52 percent) and Washington (50 percent) had the highest recycling rates of municipal waste, while Oklahoma (4 percent), Alaska (5 percent) and Mississippi (5 percent) had the lowest rates. This means that some of the leading U.S. states are just a bit behind the leading European countries: Austria (63 percent), Germany (62 percent) and Belgium (58 percent) in 2010.

2. Recycling Rates Have Plateaued in Recent Years

After increasing for decades, municipal recycling rates have actually slipped a bit since the peak in 2011. Sure, we’re only talking about a fraction of a percent, but the national recovery rate (which includes recycling and municipal composting) is stuck at 34 percent, according to EPA figures.

One way for municipalities to address this is by emphasizing participation in existing programs. Most thrift stores, for example, will recycle torn or stained clothing or find other ways to reuse the materials, but the general public is often unaware of this. Likewise, recycling electronics is often overlooked, resulting in fairly low recovery rates. Many respondents to the Pew survey were unsure if there are electronics recycling programs in their areas, which could severely hinder participation.

Unfortunately, many recycling programs have started losing money, especially in recent years. This is because commodity prices are down, making recycling programs less lucrative to operate. Now, many localities are forced to pay recyclers to take collected items, while they may have been paid for these materials in the past.

3. Americans Are Very Good at Recycling Certain Items

There are vastly different recycling rates for some things compared with others. For example, an impressive 99 percent of lead-acid car batteries, 89 percent of corrugated cardboard boxes, and 67 percent of newspapers and directories are recycled. In fact, half the waste materials recovered by weight are paper and paperboard, according to the EPA. Although these recovery rates are impressive for some materials, they are downright dismal for others…

4. Some Items Are Not Widely Recycled

Despite extremely widespread use, plastic bottles have low recovery rates, and this varies by the type of plastic resin. For example, only 28 percent of high-density polyethylene containers, a category that includes plastic milk jugs, are recycled. Plastic bags and wraps have an even lower recovery rate, at 14 percent. This is partially because there are many different types of plastic resins and this makes sorting costly, confusing and difficult.

Nondurable goods including clothing and textiles had a combined recycling and export rate of nearly 17 percent in 2013. This is especially unfortunate because clothing is almost 100 percent recyclable and cotton is an extremely environmentally demanding crop.

Food waste is another dismal tale and makes up 21 percent of the municipal waste that isn’t recycled or composted. Obviously, the best way to reduce this amount is by reducing food waste at the source, donating it to people in need or feeding it to animals. Composting food is certainly a better option than sending it to a landfill, where it will release methane gas.

5. Social Norms Impact Recycling Options

The Pew survey found that 28 percent of respondents say that their local community’s social norms strongly value recycling and reuse. On the other end of the spectrum, 22 percent say most people in their communities don’t encourage recycling. The remaining half of respondents live in areas with social norms that are somewhere in the middle.

There is a correlation between people living in communities that value recycling and the recycling options available. Of those living in communities with social norms that strongly encourage recycling, 84 percent have curbside programs, 80 percent have drop-off centers and 62 percent have recycling services for electronic devices. On the other hand, in communities that don’t have social norms encouraging recycling, only 36 percent of respondents have curbside programs, 48 percent have drop-off centers and 30 percent have recycling services for electronics.

Which finding from the Pew study on recycling surprises you most?

Sarah Lozanova
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Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is a renewable energy and sustainability journalist and communications professional with an MBA in sustainable management. She is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Earth911, Home Power, Triple Pundit, CleanTechnica, The Ecologist, GreenBiz, Renewable Energy World and Windpower Engineering. Lozanova also works with several corporate clients as a public relations writer to gain visibility for renewable energy and sustainability achievements.
Sarah Lozanova
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