people gathering items to recycle from park

We all want a sustainable economy, but the best way to achieve sustainability remains a matter of controversy. Mandatory recycling programs are successful in some cities while others vouch that voluntary efforts are most effective. Earth911 examined how the two approaches to recycling programs are playing out in U.S. cities.

While many cities in the United States maintain active recycling programs, most of these programs are voluntary. Individuals and businesses often “opt out” of recycling and send materials to a landfill because they believe recycling costs more or requires too much time. Amid rapid recycling industry changes in the aftermath of China’s ban on importation of U.S. recyclables, it can appear that recycling costs more than landfilling. But that view ignores the energy and raw materials savings generated by recycling.

On the other hand, U.S. cities such as San Diego, Honolulu, San Francisco, Seattle, and Pittsburgh have made recycling programs mandatory. Other cities have introduced mandatory programs for business locations, allowing individuals to choose whether or not to participate. Although recycling rates are higher in these cities, there is still much “wishful” recycling due to poor information. People toss unrecyclable materials in the recycling bin in hopes it can be processed. The resulting contamination presents all sorts of problems, ranging from increased recycling processing costs to rendering tons of otherwise recyclable materials worthless.

Unfortunately, consumer education about what can be recycled is often insufficient. Without standards and clear guidance, people fail to recycle effectively regardless of whether a city embraces voluntary or mandatory recycling.

Mandatory: You Must Recycle!

Nine years ago, Earth911 reported about several cities that had pioneered mandatory recycling programs. Since then, more cities and even some states have set out mandatory programs.

The city of Oakland, California, for example, started a mandatory recycling program for its largest businesses in 2012. The city expanded its mandatory program to include all businesses in 2014. Starting in 2016, Oakland required home and business recyclers to collect food scraps and compostable paper separately from recyclables and trash.

Oakland also provides free organics carts to multi-family properties within their city. The city is considering zero waste plan proposals from a variety of organizations.

Dallas and Austin took different experiences toward mandatory programs. In 2011, Dallas launched a 50-year solid waste plan to transform the city’s waste management systems to achieve zero waste by 2060. The first progress checkpoint is approaching in 2019, when all apartment buildings within the city must be zero-waste compliant, but to date, Dallas had achieved less than 10 percent of the goal.

By 2020, Dallas aims to bring their recycling program collection rate to 40 percent. The city hopes to achieve 60 percent recycling rates in 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. However, public reception of these deadlines is shaky, because of worries over contamination and funding.

Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance, by contrast, made steady progress since its inception in 1999. A breakthrough in the program came with the advent of the city’s embrace of single stream recycling. By this method, the consumer or business gathers all recyclables in a single bin; the items are then sorted by the hauler at a central location. After the single-bin model was put in place, acceptance of and adherence to the ordinance increased rapidly. Ease of recycling eliminated many complaints about the program.


State Recycling Leaders Favor Mandatory Rules

Perhaps the most ambitious examples of government bodies pushing for greater sustainability are Connecticut and Vermont, two states that took mandatory recycling programs to the next level.

Connecticut enacted mandatory recycling in 1989, when it introduced a list of nine items that were required to be recycled. Since then, the state has expanded the list of materials that must be recycled. Individual municipalities can add their own recycling requirements to this statewide mandate. Additionally, in 2010, the state implemented a requirement for large-scale food waste generators to compost waste. Connecticut kept its bottle deposit system in place as other states discontinued deposit programs.

In 2012, Vermont began a similar recycling program with its Universal Recycling Law, an effective ban on three major types of recyclable materials in landfills: “blue bin” recyclables, yard clippings, and food waste. A 2018 amendment to the law established a state-wide ban on food waste from landfills, effective in 2020. Vermont also made its bottle-deposit system more rigorous to reinforce recycling incentives.

Voluntary Cities Offer Many Choices

As some cities move to enforce recycling practices, in many parts of the country, recycling is voluntary for individuals and businesses. Only 11 states have mandatory recycling laws on the books.

Establishing a state recycling system is daunting and complex, not to mention expensive. In states that don’t prioritize government spending, recycling becomes a secondary concern, even if citizens want very much to recycle responsibly. When no budget exists for a program, recycling choices remain stubbornly private-sector and voluntary. Consequently, the U.S. recycling rate hasn’t changed substantially since 2010.

But even when recycling is voluntary, we have countless opportunities to help raise sustainability. Drop-off locations, opt-in recycling curbside programs, and guides on sustainable living are everywhere, with more opportunities to recycle popping up every day. Every little bit helps keep our planet healthy.

By Taylor Ratcliffe

Taylor Ratcliffe is Earth911's customer support and database manager. He is a graduate of the University of Washington.