This Is Plastics: Plastics Recycling in the U.S.— by the Numbers


Plastics Recycling in the U.S.— by the Numbers

Improving national recycling infrastructure will strengthen the circular plastics economy and ensure communities, consumers and the environment benefit.


Improving nationwide recycling by increasing investments in infrastructure will support a circular economy and benefit the environment. In fact, a recent study by the United States National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that, in addition to decreasing plastic waste, a fully circular plastics economy—one in which plastic products can be reused and transformed into new products—could save the United States up to $9.9 billion annually.

Recovering and recycling plastic product saves energy and valuable materials

Advanced and traditional recycling systems complement one another and are crucial for the recovery and reuse of materials. To further the circular economy and maximize the potential future use of plastic products, it is crucial that plastics are diverted from landfills and find second lives as new products. Recycling just one metric ton of redirected, post-consumer plastic can save 5,774 kilowatt hours (Kwh) of energy, enough to power 57 electric vehicles. Even manufacturing one metric ton of plastic containers with recycled PET saves 7,200 Kwh of energy, enough to power the average American home for over 8 months.

Without national definitions for recycling, attaining a circular economy becomes more challenging at the state level

The U.S. government continues to depend on local and state governments to enact their own waste management and recycling definitions and strategies. However, without federal laws that clearly define recycling, states and counties are left with a patchwork of inconsistent definitions, and legislation. Oftentimes this creates policies, and eventually, infrastructure that negatively impact recycling rates, causing confusion among consumers.

For example, in Fairfax County, Virginia, 90 percent of residents use private recycling services, each with varying procedures and accepted material lists, creating confusion across recycling companies. The remaining 10 percent of residents have their recycling collected by the county, but only after having to petition for service and paying for it through county taxes. With limited funding, local governments are also forced to make tradeoffs in community recycling. In some cases, counties facing a lack of funding may have to personally bring their recyclables to local collection sites or material recovery facilities (MRFs), which could impact participation and public perception of the practice all together.

Patchwork policy-making aside, recycling saves taxpayers money

While having a variety of recycling program structures across the country poses its own challenges, the financial benefit of recycling itself is evident. From job creation and wages to revenue generation through the sale of recyclable waste, recycling plastic goods greatly benefits the economy. For example, in 2021, Emmet County, Michigan benefited from a recycling program first-hand when their revenue was boosted by over $1 million, thanks to recycling revenue generation. The recycling revenue was reinvested into local projects the county needed.

New Yorkers are also increasingly supportive of recycling programs, with 77 percent of those surveyed supporting potential legislation to adopt state advanced recycling practices, which could generate over $500 million in economic output for the state. As illustrated in Michigan, New York could reinvest monies generated from recycling into initiatives most needed by the state such as infrastructure, environmental projects and education.  

Federal action will improve recycling systems across the U.S.

If the United States were to recycle just 5 percent more of its plastic waste, over 13 million tons of plastics would be diverted from landfills—but making this a reality requires consistent policies and diligent investment in waste management provisions that enhance our nation’s recycling infrastructure and encourage consumer participation. Examples of recent federal action include the EPA’s release of a National Recycling Strategy to create more resilient and cost-effective municipal recycling systems and the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, which provides $55 million in annual funding to improve local recycling infrastructure and reduce plastic waste in waterways.

During a recent House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing, which offered solutions for a broken recycling system, Matt Seaholm, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association testified on the benefits of advanced recycling and the implications of banning single-use plastics. When asked what the federal government could do to encourage and facilitate advanced recycling, Seaholm emphasized the need to support the development and use of advanced recycling technologies. Advanced recycling is the best option for taking complex plastics, like multi-layer film, and keeping it in the circular economy rather than throwing it away. Seaholm also noted the billions of dollars in research and development that are devoted to methods of improving plastics recycling.

Two bills currently under review in the U.S. Congress are the Recycling and Composting Accountability Act (RCAA) and Recycling Infrastructure and Accessibility Act (RIAA), both of which would improve data collection for composting and recycling infrastructure, particularly in underserved communities.

Improving national recycling infrastructure through federal and state regulation can strengthen the circular plastics economy and ensure communities and consumers reap the benefits.

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