On January 10, 2024 The Recycling Partnership, a non-governmental organisation committed to building a better recycling system, released a report analysing the state of recycling in the US. One of the key takeaways of the report, titled “State of Recycling: Present and Future of Residential Recycling in the U.S.”, is that every material type of residential recyclables is under-recycled, including PET-bottles.
The data reveals where the gaps are greatest, and where policy, investment, and action will have the largest impact. The report is based on multi-year field measurement studies conducted across the US and The Recycling Partnership’s National Database; it employs an updated methodology for determining recycling rates that tracks materials throughout the system.
We will focus on the recycling rates for PET bottles only. While PET bottles rank among the most effectively recycled plastic packaging, the authors of the report come to the conclusion that still seven out ten PET bottles are not recycled. The reasons for the insufficient recycling rates of PET bottles are manifold.
Only 73% of all households have access to recycling. The numbers vary depending on the state. In Delaware, 97% of all households have access to recycling containers, whereas in Mississippi only 37% of households are able to conveniently recycle their trash. For those with access, some locations do not collect all packaging types thus limiting the amount of recyclable material collected.
Assuming that households have recycling access and their community accepts the widest range of recyclables possible, households must then be able to fully engage in the recycling process. This requires communication, education, and support.
When it comes to PET bottles, the data shows that households participating in a recycling programme recycle 55% of their used PET bottles. This means that even in households that have access to recycling containers, 45% of PET bottles are trashed.
Processing and Sortation
Once collected from households, recycling facilities need adequate technology and infrastructure to sort and process different material types. 85% of captured PET bottles are processed by Materials Recovery Facilities (MRF). The authors estimate that MRFs sort and process 87% of the recyclable materials they receive. In the long term, a processing rate of 95% would be desirable.
When considering all the different factors, namely recycling access, recycling engagement and processing and sorting, only 28% of PET bottles are recycled in the US. Only 971,215 tonnes out of 3,412,310 tonnes of PET bottles generated are recycled, leaving 2,441,095 tonnes lost, either in the US homes or the MRFs.
The result emphasises the importance of addressing the issue of recycling on different levels: First, by achieving full coverage of recycling facilities throughout the US. Second, by strengthening public awareness of the importance of recycling. Third, by supporting MRFs to make improvements in processing efficiency.