Recycling Reimagined

Recycling is one of the most widespread environmental success stories of the last 50 years. Cities have been at the center of it all, working with haulers, processors, and other partners to safely and sustainably manage waste. But there’s more work to be done. Recycling Reimagined is a resource to help local governments discover and pursue more innovative waste management solutions.

Recycling Is A Success Story

Recycling, composting and other sustainable waste management strategies are crucial to keep our cities clean.

  • In 2017, the U.S. recycling and reuse industry accounted for
    • 534,000 stable jobs
    • $30.6 billion in wages.
    • $117 billion in economic activity and
    • $8.2 billion in state, local and federal tax revenues.
  • Recycling and composting rates grew from 6.4 percent in 1960 to over 34 percent in 2015.
  • 53% of Americans have local, curbside recycling and another 20% can opt-in or sign-up for curbside service
Recycling Is A Success Story

Challenges We Face

Americans create a lot of trash and recycling systems are not universal, creating inconsistencies in programs and streams, difficulty in maintaining clean streams, and the issue of "Who pays for this?"

  • In 2014 the US paid $6.8 billion to dispose of 136 million tons of waste.
  • 39 million tons of food waste was generated, and only 5.3% is being composted
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Challenges We Face

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The Rise and Fall of Commodity Value

Commodity prices of recyclables are plunging, and China, the world’s largest buyer of recyclable goods, has announced a new policy restricting imports. The four commodities with the largest decrease in profitability make up a combined 59% of all US recycling. For more on the new Chinese regulations, see the NLC report "Rethinking Recycling".

The future of recycling is uncertain

As recycling has blossomed into a global industry, flaws in the system have also grown. Inconsistent recycling standards are confusing to citizens, single-stream recycling leads to high rates of contamination, and Americans continue to generate more and more waste. If we alter the way we think about waste from a burden to a resource, we will reshape our solid waste management industry into a sustainable materials management strategy. Recycling can work if we do, too.

What If We Stop Recycling?

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What Can We Do To Fix This Now?

We can create a circular economy, educate consumers, research our current waste, purchase sustainable products, prioritize new infrastructure options and improve our current technology.

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What Can We Do To Fix This Now?

Rethinking Current Strategies

The health of our citizens and the safety of our environment depend on sustainable waste management systems. We need to reimagine funding opportunities for recycling programs, pilot programs that are innovative and create new partnerships with public sector and private sectors working in tandem.

Download a PDF Version of our recommendations here.

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Rethinking Current Strategies

The Way Forward

It may seem overwhelming, but start now. Prioritizing and communicating new ways of thinking about the recycling – prevention first, then reduction, reuse, repurpose, recycle/compost, incinerate/waste-to-energy, and then landfill as a last resort – helps to create a holistic systems overhaul. Many cities are piloting innovative programs right now that can serve as templates for your own strategy.

Case studies