New report ranks US states based on recycling performance

John Hayes, chief executive of canmaker Ball, has described America’s recycling system as “broken” as a US state-by-state review of recycling rates for cans and other packaging materials shows a variation of between 2 and 72 per cent.

The report, ‘The 50 states of recycling’, from international environment consultancy Eunomia with support from Ball Corporation, shows states with the best and worst recycling rates for containers and packaging, excluding cardboard.

The overall US recycling rate for beverage cans, all of which are aluminium in the US, is 49.8 per cent according to The Aluminum Association, suggesting that about half of the 100 billion cans used by consumers are lost every year.

It is important to prioritise the recycling of materials that have the greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the highest value for creating new products, says the report. It also explains the difference between collection and recycling. The volume of material collected is often far greater than what is actually processed and recycled into new products with non-recyclable contaminants making the entire system less effective.

Recycling policies, such as a Deposit Return System (DRS) and investment in infrastructure such as kerbside collection are crucial to effective recycling systems, says the report. Nine of the top ten states with the highest recycling rates for PET bottles and aluminium cans are those with a DRS and kerbside recycling infrastructure, while three-and-a-half-times more PET and three-times more aluminium is recycled in DRS states than in non-DRS states.

Overall, it concludes that states that have more comprehensive and current recycling data along with a state-driven reporting system achieve higher recycling rates, demonstrating the importance of accurate measurement in moving the US towards a more circular economy. 

The study found the four states with the highest recycling rate for common containers and packaging materials (CCPM), excluding cardboard and boxboard, in 2018 were: Maine (72 per cent), Vermont (62), Massachusetts (55) and Oregon (55). The four with the lowest recycling rates for CCPM are: West Virginia (2), Louisiana (4), Alaska (6 ) and Tennessee (7). 

The report is intended to set a baseline in each state that can be leveraged to inform policy, design programmes and assess infrastructure proposals and improvements. Using 2018 data sourced from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), states, counties, municipalities, sorting facilities and material processors, the study looked at plastic bottles and trays, glass bottles and jars, aluminium cans, steel cans, and cardboard and boxboard.

The study takes a bottom-up approach to estimating recycling rates, analysing what is found in the waste stream based on published state and municipality data to estimate generation and recycling. Importantly, the report focuses on recycling rates using the actual material reprocessed or ‘upcycled’ into new products, rather than the collection rate, the more commonly used standard of measurement.

“Good data is the foundation of smart policy, and this study shows there is enormous opportunity for improving US recycling rates with solutions that are already working in several states,” said Sarah Edwards, director, Eunomia North America.

John Hayes added: “America’s recycling system is broken, but the good news is Americans overwhelmingly support some of the most effective solutions to reform it. If we are willing to recapitalise our antiquated recycling system by taking a fresh look at the way we create incentives, invest in adequate infrastructure and change behaviours to drive real recycling, we can lead the country toward a more circular and sustainable future.”