U.S. Recycling: Half Full? Half Empty?

Professor Plastics

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Woman measuring a cup

I love keeping tabs on all the cool advancements in plastics recycling, tracking recycling stats and hearing how communities are collecting more and more of my favorite materials. And I love hearing about all the fun and innovative uses for recycled plastics.

But I usually don’t hear so much about what people actually think and say about recycling. That’s why results from a recent survey about people’s attitudes and activities related to recycling in the U.S. are so interesting to me.

The survey or 1,006 U.S. adults—conducted in September 2014, by global insights firm Kelton Global and sponsored by Plastics Make it Possible®—paints a sort of half-full, half-empty picture of recycling in the U.S.

U.S. Recycling Survey Results: Half Full

  • Half of Americans say they recycle 75 percent or more of their recyclable items.
  • Eight percent say they recycle all recyclables.
  • Nearly two thirds of Americans say they recycle on a “regular basis.”

Sounds pretty good, right?

U.S. Recycling Survey Results: Half Empty

  • Looking at the results another way, half of Americans say they recycle less than 75 percent of their recyclables.
  • Eight percent say they don’t recycle at all.
  • And the “half full” results contrast with the 2012 national recycling rate of 34.5 percent, as measured by the S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

OK…it seems like most people generally want to do the right thing and that there is a lot of opportunity for improvement.

Environmental Benefits of Recycling in the U.S.

Thankfully, recycling in the U.S. continues to grow—according to the EPA, the U.S. recycling rate has more than doubled since 1990. And that’s really good news. I mean, let’s remember why we recycle. Simply put, many materials, including plastics, have value even after we use them, so burying them in landfills is a waste of resources. Plus, according to EPA’s 2012 report on recycling:

  • 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 simply hauling and burying garbage.

Energy savings. Reduced greenhouse gases. More good jobs. Recycling sounds pretty smart.

U.S. Recycling Has Room to Grow

Regardless whether the glass is half full or half empty today, based on the benefits of recycling, we should be striving for a full glass. (Germany reportedly landfills only one percent of its waste!) We all can do our part by recycling everything possible and looking for products that contain recycled materials. In particular: plastics!

Some quick plastics recycling tips that you may not know:

  • Twist caps back on bottles and put lids back on containers when recycling.
  • Recycle beyond your kitchen (e.g., bathroom, laundry room, garage). Bottles from shampoo, hair conditioners, body wash, laundry detergents, and household cleaners go in the bin, too.
  • Today there are more than 18,000 store drop-off locations throughout the U.S. that collect plastic bags, wraps, and film for recycling—just bundle your bags and wraps from bread, produce, household paper products, dry cleaning, beverage cases, and shipping pillows and drop them off in a store recycling bin.

In 2014 Plastics Make it Possible® celebrated America Recycles Day by taking its interactive “Recycling RV” on a three-week autumn tour with the theme: “Don’t Be Trashy. Recycle.” The Recycling RV made several stops in East Coast cities such as Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. You can visit the Plastics Make it Possible® website to see where the Recycling RV went, maybe to a city near you. You can also play recycling games and watch a video on plastics recycling.