Measuring Packaging Recycling Rates Across the US

30th March 2021

We have published a new research report with support from Ball Corporation entitled ‘The 50 States of Recycling: A States-by-State Assessment of Containers and Packaging Recycling Rates‘, offering the first state-by-state comparison of recycling rates for the most commonly used containers and packaging materials throughout the United States.

Notable findings include:

  • Not all recycling is created equal, and we should prioritize recycling of materials that have the greatest potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the highest value for creating new products.
  • Collection and recycling are not synonymous, as the quantity of material collected for recycling today 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) or “bottle bill,” and investment in infrastructure, such as kerbside collection, are crucial to effective recycling systems.
  • Overall, the 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 first-of-its-kind report is intended to set a baseline in each state that can be leveraged to inform policy, design programs 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.

Importantly, the report focuses on recycling rates based on the actual material reprocessed or “upcycled” into new products, rather than the collection rate, the more commonly used standard of measurement. By taking actual material reprocessed into new products as the point of measurement, the recycling rate is more representative of a material’s true circularity and accounts for material losses at the sorting and processing stage.

The study found the 10 states with the highest recycling rate for common containers and packaging materials (CCPM) excluding cardboard and boxboard in 2018 are: Maine (72%); Vermont (62%); Massachusetts (55%); Oregon (55%); Connecticut (52%); New York (51%); Minnesota (49%); Michigan (48%); New Jersey (46%); and Iowa (44%).

The 10 states with the lowest recycling rate for CCPM (excluding cardboard and boxboard) in 2018 are: New Mexico (13%); Texas (13%); Alabama (11%); Oklahoma (10%); Mississippi (8%); South Carolina (8%); Tennessee (7%); Alaska (6%); Louisiana (4%); and West Virginia (2%).

Head of Eunomia’s New York Office Sarah Edwards said: “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. We want to help policymakers, operators, and investors make more informed strategic decisions when it comes to recycling, infrastructure investment and reducing emissions in waste management.

Among the other highlights in the report:

  • Of the top 10 recycling states:
    • 7 have good data quality, availability and state reporting systems.
    • 8 have a DRS or “bottle bill.”
    • 8 have higher landfill disposal costs on a per ton basis.
  • Low-value cardboard and boxboard makes up 71% of the recycling waste stream.
  • Recycling one ton of aluminium has 3x the GHG reduction benefit compared to recycling one ton of cardboard.
  • More effective waste management policies could reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 5% – the equivalent of grounding all commercial flights globally and taking 65% of cars off the road for a year.
  • 9 of the top 10 states with the highest recycling rates for PET bottles and aluminium cans are states with a DRS and kerbside recycling infrastructure.
  • 5x more PET and 3x more aluminium is recycled in DRS states than in non-DRS states.
  • Only 32% of non-bottle PET (such as clamshells) collected is estimated to be recycled across the 50 US states.

Ball Corporation CEO John Hayes said: “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 recapitalize 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.