Recycling Benefits & Challenges
Benefits and Challenges to Recycling in the 21st Century:
Recycling, as any process, comes with a number of benefits and challenges. The EPA outlines several environmental and economic benefits that may be attained from recycling, including:
- Reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfills: Adoption of recycling initiatives may often lead to a reduction in the amount of waste sent to landfills. For example, a multi-year waste reduction initiative funded by the National Park Foundation at three national parks—Yosemite, Grand Teton and Denali—led to a 32% reduction in waste sent to landfills. According to the EPA’s Waste Management Hierarchy, while landfills are a vital component of an integrated waste management system, disposal lays at the bottom of the hierarchy, below source reduction and recycling.
- Conservation of natural resources and reduction in energy use: For instance, metal recycling reduces the energy requirements of manufacturing new tin and steel products by 60-70%. Recycling just one ton of steel eliminates the need to mine 2,500 pounds of iron ore and 1,400 pounds of coal.
- Fostering economic security and job growth: The Recycling Economic Information Report found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 757,000 jobs, $36.6 billion in wages and $6.7 billion in tax revenues. This equates to 1.57 jobs, $76,000 in wages and $14,101 in tax revenues for every 1,000 tons of material recycled.
While many tout the benefits of recycling, the challenges facing the current recycling system cannot be ignored. Those include:
- Shifting domestic markets, and troublesome export fields: In 2018 China issued major trade restrictions for the U.S. recyclable material markets. The “National Sword” policy banned the import of certain types of solid waste including mixed paper and plastics, in addition to setting strict contamination limits on recyclable materials. While other international markets, notably Vietnam and India, entered the space, they too began to enact and implement their own restrictions. The effects of the policy left a substantial portion of the U.S. recycling industry in search of alternative domestic markets, prompting states to take action to foster them. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic had varying effects on different recyclable commodities, with some, such as recyclable corrugated cardboard and recyclable mixed paper, experiencing increased demand, while others such as recycled plastics and certain metals, declining. Since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, most commodities have recovered, but the desire to build strong and resilient recycling markets remains a priority for policymakers and stakeholders alike.
- Poor access to, or outdated recycling infrastructure: Access to adequate infrastructure is crucial to sustaining recycling in the U.S., but many in rural or more remote areas, and those in multifamily dwellings may lack access to facilities.
- Varying levels of consumer education and confusion regarding recycling: With recycling pickup varying from community to community, it can be difficult for the consumer to know what can and what cannot be recycled. While most Americans associate the “chasing arrows” symbol with products that can be recycled, that is often not the case. Displaying the chasing arrows on traditionally non-recyclable packaging has led to consumer confusion about what should go into recycling bins, creating challenges for sorting materials at recycling facilities. The only way to know for sure what is recycled in a specific city or county is to research each item individually.
Economic Impacts of Recycling:
One of the top benefits of recycling is economic growth. As such, a number of industry groups, government stakeholders and others have worked over the years to quantify the jobs, wages and tax revenue generated by recycling.
The EPA published the 2020 Recycling Economic Information (REI) Report aiming to increase the understanding of the economic implications of material reuse and recycling. The most recent iteration of the REI found that in 2012, recycling and reuse activities in the United States contributes approximately 700,000 jobs, $38 billion in wages and over $5 billion in tax revenues per year. Per EPA’s report, the ferrous metals industry provides the largest contribution to all three categories, followed by construction and demolition (C&D) and non-ferrous metals such as aluminum.
In addition to federal-led studies, states across the nation have commissioned their own studies to better understand the economic impacts of recycling. Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia are just some of the states that have conducted such an analysis.
For example, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was directed by the legislature to conduct a study on the current and potential economic impacts of recycling, including state and local revenue that may be considered lost because recyclable materials are not recycled. According to the study, approximately 9.2 million tons of municipal solid waste designated material were recycled in Texas in 2015. Typical recyclables (paper, plastics, metal, and glass), organics (yard trimmings, brush, green waste, and food and beverage materials), and construction and demolition materials accounted for 8.7 million tons, or 94.4% of the total recycled materials in Texas. Based on an average commodity market for typical recyclables, organics, and C&D materials, $702 million in materials were recycled in Texas in 2015. The study also found that the recycling of municipal solid waste creates economic benefits for the state economy, with more than 17,000 person years of direct, indirect, and induced employment supported during 2015. The overall impact of recycling MSW on the Texas economy exceeded $3.3 billion.
Recycling rates in Michigan reached an all-time high in 2023, according to the state department of environment, great lakes, and energy (EGLE). In FY 22, residents recycled over 339,000 tons of paper, 154,000 tons of metals, 71,000 tons of glass and 45,000 tons of plastic. Due to a combination of increased access, consumer education, and investments in infrastructure and technology, recycling rates have risen from 14.25% prior to 2019, to 21% in 2023. All told, recycling, reuse, and remanufacturing industries in Michigan create 72,500 jobs and contribute more than $17 billion to the state’s total economic output.
Relatedly, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) publishes a biannual Economic Impact Study on the U.S.-based recycling industry that examines various types of direct and indirect economic activity –jobs and exports, with reports available for national, congressional district, state, state district, and city levels. In the most recent iteration, ISRI found that the recycling industry in the U.S. had a nearly $117 billion contribution to the U.S. economy.
There are a number of actions a state may take surrounding recycling, including but not limited to: needs assessments to accurately capture the status of recycling in the state and any areas for improvement; state grants and other funding and financing mechanisms to bolster existing or provide for new and improved recycling infrastructure; solid waste management plans; statewide goals; food waste reduction; recycling requirements or material bans; and extended producer responsibility laws to name a few. NCSL will explore a few of these policy considerations more in depth in our other reports.
State Governance & Recycling Roles and Responsibilities
Government Roles and Responsibilities - Recycling:
In 1976, Congress enacted the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), creating a framework for managing non-hazardous, and hazardous, solid waste. The law itself describes the waste management program mandated by Congress which gave the EPA the authority to develop the RCRA program. While the EPA has developed regulations for national technical standards for how disposal facilities should be designed and permitted, states play the lead role in implementing non-hazardous waste programs under Subtitle D of RCRA. States may set more stringent requirements for the operation of municipal and industrial waste landfills than the minimum standards set by the federal government, but should a state lack an approved program, the federal requirements must be met by waste facilities.
That said, no national law in the United States mandates recycling. All recycling efforts are established at a state or local level and vary widely based on commodity and region. State regulation of recycling varies across the board but tends to fall into a few major categories—landfill bans, recycling goals, product restrictions and more. According to the Northeast Recycling Council, 49 states have a landfill ban of some sort, but only 25 states have mandatory recycling laws. Landfill bans make discarding certain materials at landfills illegal—certain bans include yard waste and oil, while others ban tires, certain electronic waste, and aluminum and tin cans. Among the 25 jurisdictions with mandatory recycling requirements, the materials most impacted include: corrugated cardboard, high-grade office paper, aluminum and tin cans, and glass containers.
A state that does not mandate recycling, however, does not always prohibit a municipality from requiring it. For example, Pittsburgh, requires residents of single-family homes and small apartments to separate recyclable items from household trash and package them for bi-weekly recycling curbside collection, and also requires all businesses to establish a program to recycle specific materials and partner with a commercial hauler.
Solid Waste Agencies by State and Territory:
The agency responsible for recycling may differ within your state or territory. For more information please use the chart below. Additionally, EPA maintains a list of state and local waste characterization studies – while reports may not be available for all states, you can find them here.