Can the U.S. Dramatically Increase Recycling Rates?

I want to be a bench recycle me poster

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Recycling in the U.S. is growing. Our nation’s overall recycling rate reached 34.5 percent in 2012, more than double the 1990 rate, as measured by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

That’s really good news. Many materials, including plastics, have value even after we use them, so burying them in landfills is a waste of resources. Plus, recycling programs for plastics and other materials can have a positive influence on the environment, according to EPA’s report on recycling in 2012:

  • Recycling combined with composting (EPA often lumps these together) saved “the same amount of energy consumed by almost 10 million U.S. households in a year.”
  • Recycling and composting reduced greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of removing more than 33 million passenger vehicles from the road in a year.
  • Recycling and composting industries can create significantly more and better jobs than hauling and burying garbage.

Recycling of plastic bottles, containers, and bags has grown each year since tracking began. For example, the pounds of used plastic bottles collected for recycling have grown each year since 1990, and the recycling rate reached nearly 31 percent in 2012. According to reports commissioned for the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), today more than 90 percent of Americans have access to plastics recycling, and there are more than 18,000 collection locations for plastic bags and wraps (more on that below).

But recycling advocates continually ask: can we do better? Many other countries have significantly higher recycling rates. (Germany landfills only one percent of its waste!)

Innovations in recycling are showing promise. For instance, many communities recently have seen huge advances in recycling rates after moving to “single stream” recycling, in which all recyclables go in one bin. These rising recycling rates are lifting all materials, including plastics.

In addition, government, businesses, and the recycling community now are working together to help consumers better understand what and where to recycle. For example, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has created a new “How 2 Recycle” label for packaging that provides clear, simple, and nationally harmonized recycling directions. With support from companies including Costco, General Mills, Microsoft, and Estee Lauder, the new label has the potential to dramatically increase recycling rates.

Another widespread collection program for used plastic “film” (bread bags, newspaper bags, grocery bags, dry-cleaning wraps, and other flexible product wraps) has been rolled out at thousands of major retailers across the country, including grocery stores, Target, Walmart, Lowe’s, and others. The plastic film is recycled into composite lumber, containers, pallets, and new film and bag applications. The composite decking company Trex, one of the largest plastic bag recyclers in the U.S., uses 140,000 plastic bags in an average 500-square foot deck.

While these and other efforts will help significantly increase plastics (and other) recycling, perhaps what’s really needed to jolt recycling rates is a cultural shift in attitudes towards waste and recycling. Today only 52 percent of Americans say that they are “very” or “extremely” knowledgeable about how to properly recycle, according to research by the Ad Council. And only 38 percent of Americans identify themselves as “avid” recyclers. That must change for the U.S. to reach substantially higher recycling rates.

Numerous organizations and companies are hoping that a recently launched campaign to boost recycling can help.

Many (older) people remember the advertisement that featured Iron Eyes Cody, “The Crying Indian,” that first aired on Earth Day in 1971. The ad demonstrated how litter and other forms of pollution were hurting the environment and emphasized that every individual had a personal responsibility to help protect the environment. That campaign, sponsored by the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful (KAB), helped make it culturally unacceptable to litter. The ad became one of the most memorable and successful campaigns in advertising history and was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century by Ad Age.

A campaign launched in 2013, sponsored again by the Ad Council and KAB and supported in part by the Plastics Division of ACC, similarly provides free Public Service Advertising (PSA) for television, radio, print, and outdoor advertising to spread the word about the importance of recycling. The campaign is “designed to raise awareness about the benefits of recycling with the goal to make recycling a daily social norm.” The advertising encourages people to “give your garbage another life. Recycle.” It’s a simple message: It’s not waste – it has value, so recycle.

The Ad Council distributed the PSAs to more than 33,000 media outlets nationwide. Following the Ad Council’s model, the ads will run in space and time entirely donated by the media.

In addition to adverting, the campaign’s web site ( encourages recycling and highlights its benefits: conserving natural resources, reducing the need for landfills, preventing pollution, saving energy, and creating jobs. Web site visitors can “discover how your garbage gets a new life,” and learn more about recycling, such as the fact that “some materials can travel through the recycling and manufacturing process to be back on the store shelf in as little as 30 days.” Recycling advocates also are encouraged to share recycling videos and facts on social media and to participate in events in recognition of America Recycles Day on November 15, as well as various recycling challenges.

In addition to the Plastics Division of ACC, numerous companies and organizations support the campaign, including Alcoa Foundation, Anheuser-Busch Foundation, Nestlé Waters North America, Niagara Bottling, Unilever, and Waste Management.

As KAB noted when announcing the campaign, “Based on survey feedback, we know people want to recycle. This campaign is designed to tap into that desire as well as provide helpful tools to make recycling easier.”

Will it work? Can this campaign help make it culturally unacceptable to toss recyclable plastics – or any recyclable – in the trash?

That’s up to all of us.

For information on the campaign visit