diverse group of adults demonstrating success

Waste collection is a human necessity, one that has evolved since the earliest human settlements. As our economy and the products it creates become more complex, trash pick-ups and industrial composting are just a few of the services in which local government must develop new approaches to support a sustainable, functioning community.

It’s not very difficult to convince everyone in a town to place their garbage cans at the end of their driveway. That step was accomplished only within the last half century. But encouraging consistent participation in recycling requires more than offering a bare minimum service, which is the standard in the United States. We pick up trash and recycling, but citizens receive no feedback about their success at sorting and cleaning recyclables, nor confirmation that materials are recycled.

Local governments must partner with citizens and businesses to develop the ideas and generate the support that make programs work. With local support, cities and counties can kickstart the circular economy, which will deliver public and private innovation to make our lives efficient, sustainable, and prosperous while maximizing recycling and judicious use of natural resources.

Why Has Recycling Stalled in the U.S.?

The U.S. recycling rate has hovered around 34 percent for the past five to eight years, though it is slowly declining instead of rising. Roughly two-thirds of everything we throw away ends up in a landfill or incinerator. And that’s just the average rate across the nation. There are wide differences between states.

Earth911 analyzed a study that found in California, 53 percent of household waste gets recycled while in Oklahoma, only 4 percent does. Local government may have failed to provide recycling services, or people may be disinclined to separate materials for recycling because they believe their efforts won’t make a difference. Either of these reasons is cause for concern, because the U.S. is running out of landfill capacity.

From the same study, only 28 percent of Americans reported living in communities that strongly encourage recycling. These communities typically had options for recycling including curbside programs and drop-off sites for e-waste. The rest of Americans live in communities that haven’t placed a priority on developing a robust recycling program, leaving lots of room for improvement!

How Do We Make Recycling Work?

People can use technology to reorganize their communities as recycling platforms. Similar to emerging cloud platforms like Uber or TaskRabbit, community platforms could connect local residents, businesses, and government so that they can cooperate to recycle, reuse, and recirculate materials successfully. Mobile apps can also provide feedback to recyclers to help improve curbside sorting and find more materials that can be recycled.

Communities may even reimagine how services are funded, providing payments to members of the community who make the circular economy work for all. Such experiments are underway across many parts of the economy. In recycling, the value of materials recovered is seldom shared with the consumer or business who takes the first step to recycle. Here’s an example demonstrating that financial incentives work.

Education and Access

A Michigan State University study found that spending $1 per person on recycling education increased the recycling rate by 2 percent overall. When curbside pickup services were combined with drop-off programs, people significantly increased their recycling rates compared to access to either type of program alone. Availability is essential to recycling engagement.

The effectiveness of local messaging from government and business will vary, but without this key component, it’s hard to envision recycling programs reaching high levels of success. Local governments should also open two-way lines of communication — whether online, over the phone, or in person — so citizens can voice their concerns and ideas. This encourages people to feel ownership over their recycling program.

Citizens can take the lead, as well, by organizing online. Consider joining sites such as Shareable to participate in launching ideas and shaping new options for local recycling.

The Financial Carrot and Stick

Money is a great motivator to encourage or discourage behaviors. Countries in Europe are already using economic incentives to encourage positive behaviors in their citizens.

In the U.S., local governments could provide incentives to the many programs that reward recyclers with cash for their waste. This could encourage even more such recycling programs, creating a win-win scenario for residents and recycling businesses alike.

On the flip side, communities and states can levy fines on residents and businesses for negative behaviors such as throwing away recyclable items like computers or aluminum cans. Earth911 recently found that mandatory recycling programs generally produce better results than voluntary systems.

Communities Can Lead the Recycling Revolution

Recycling changes ultimately start at home. Local government can implement recycling policies, but citizens must be serious about transitioning to a zero-waste society if policies are to succeed. The local government is the first line of offense in the recycling process, placing them in an excellent position to introduce the circular economy to every citizen.

Recycling programs that empower citizens to take control of their waste will change the way they participate in the circular economy. Local programs should provide a platform for action that encourages active participation in the recycling process.

Each community that makes recycling a priority moves us in the right direction. They are our best hope for creating a dynamic recycling system that can finally push the U.S. past its plateauing recycling rate. Is your community a recycling leader?


By Jayson Arend

Jayson Arend has a bachelor's degree in environmental science and business with an interest in exploring how a thriving society and the environment can coexist.