Recycling Facts

fifty year bar chart comparing recycling rates for select materials, ten year time intervals

Whether it's saving milk jugs, sorting newspapers neatly into a pile or placing unnecessary office paper in a corner recycling bin, the American recycling experiment continues.

Consider the set of statistics, reflected in the top bar chart. It compares American recycling rates for select materials (paper, glass, metals and plastics) over a fifty year time frame (1960-2010), using ten year intervals.

The large green bars on the graph show that between 1960 and 2010, paper recycling rates exceeded the recycling rates for the other materials.

As the years pass, American recycling habits expanded, with beverage container recycling explaining much of the increase in glass, metals and plastics recycling in 1990.

Starting in 1990, yard trimming recycling rates, not presented in the top bar chart, also occupied a larger portion of the average American's recycling efforts. By 2010, Americans were recycling 57.5% of all their yard trimmings.

pie chart comparing the recycling rates of various materials as a percent of the total amount of recycled materials in the 2010 municipal waste stream

The second chart, a pie chart, moves the conversation from a long term, fifty year recycling perspective to a short term, one year recycling perspective.

The ten categories of materials recovered from the municipal waste stream listed in the pie chart cover all of the categories for which material recycling statistics are recorded.

Based on their sheer volume in the recycled materials stream, paper and lawn trimmings make up three-quarters of the total volume of all recycled materials in 2010.

Eight materials constituting the remaining one-quarter of the 2010 recycling total also sound familiar to American recycling ears. At one time or another during the year, many Americans receive reminders to recycle glass, plastic, metals, textiles, woods, and other materials.

Source: Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. December 2011.

In many locations, changing technology and community practices contributed to recycling rate upward momentum over this same sixty year time frame.

Reverse vending machines, invented during a 1990s recycling technology wave, now fill space in many retail locations around the country.

State beverage container recycling laws and ease of use account for a portion of their long term success.

While circumstances exist where individuals might need a moment to stop and think through any particular recycling task, most modern recycling tasks, like using reverse vending machines, are quite simple tasks, accomplished by many people unreflectively participating in organized beverage container recycling programs.

The 9,000 curbside recycling programs in existence between 1985 and 2005 also contributed to increased aggregate recycling rates. (Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA))

All curbside recycling programs follow some general rules. Five of the most common are presented below.

  • Follow Sorting Guidelines: Discover which materials (paper, plastic, glass) get classified as recyclable and sort them accordingly. Some programs, for example, require newspapers to be sorted from office paper. Other programs might only accept plastic milk jugs versus all types of plastic materials.
  • Keep Recycled Material Clean: Most programs request participants rinse bottles, cans and other materials prior to placing them at the curbside. Rinsing also provides proactive pest deterrence for the recycling bin.
  • Know Your Recycling Bins: Most curbside recycling programs designate official recycling bins. Participants who forget to use the official recycling bins risk having their recycled materials left behind on recycling day.
  • Know Your Recycling Day: Curbside recycling schedules that run concurrent with local garbage collection schedules allow households to schedule garbage and recycling chores for the same day.
  • In Doubt, Leave it Out: In order to avoid potential contamination of the recycling pile, refrain from placing all non-recyclable items in recycling bin.

The links to the nine articles in the box on the right point to further issue specific recycling information.

© 2001-2012. Patricia A. Michaels.