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How Much Does The US Recycle

Do you ever find yourself pondering, “How much does the US recycle?” You’re certainly not alone. As environmental concerns increasingly permeate our everyday lives, understanding how we, as a nation, contribute to sustainability becomes essential.

TL;DR: The US recycling rate has been hovering around 32-35% for the last few years, indicating that approximately a third of the total waste produced is recycled. This statistic is pivotal, considering the massive amounts of waste generated daily.

Yet, there’s significant room for improvement. We must take collective action towards better recycling practices to promote a sustainable future.

Understanding Recycling Rates in the US

Recycling rates are a crucial indicator of a country’s environmental impact. It’s a percentage representation of the total waste produced that is then diverted from landfills or incinerators and repurposed through recycling or composting.

As of my knowledge cutoff in September 2021, the US recycling rate sat around 32%. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that out of approximately 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in 2018, only about 94 million tons were recycled or composted.

Dissecting Recycling Material Types

Recycling isn’t one-size-fits-all; different materials have varying rates. Let’s unpack this:

  • Paper and Paperboard: Around 68.2% of paper and paperboard waste was recycled in 2018, making it one of the most commonly recycled materials.
  • Yard Trimmings: In 2018, about 63.8% of yard trimmings were composted.
  • Metals: The recycling rate for metals varied depending on the type. Around 35.2% of all metals in MSW were recycled.
  • Plastic: A meager 8.5% of plastics generated were recycled in 2018, reflecting the significant challenges with plastic waste management.
  • Glass: Approximately 33.1% of glass waste was recycled in 2018.

These figures underline the importance of our individual roles in enhancing these rates, particularly with materials that lag behind, like plastic.

Why Recycling Rates Matter

Recycling rates are not mere numbers. They reflect our commitment to sustainability. Here’s why:

  • Conservation of Resources: Recycling helps conserve finite natural resources. When we recycle, we reduce the need for extracting raw materials.
  • Energy Efficiency: Manufacturing goods from recycled materials generally requires less energy compared to production from raw materials.
  • Climate Change Mitigation: Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions, making it a key player in the fight against climate change.

The Impact of the US on Global Recycling

While the focus thus far has been domestic, it’s crucial to understand how US recycling practices impact global recycling networks. For years, the US, along with many other developed nations, shipped a significant portion of its recyclable waste overseas, particularly to China.

This practice was primarily due to economic considerations: it was often cheaper to export waste than to process it domestically.

However, in 2018, China implemented the “National Sword” policy, effectively banning the import of most types of solid wastes, including recyclables.

The policy exposed serious flaws in global waste management practices and underscored the necessity for countries, including the US, to develop robust, sustainable domestic recycling systems.

How the US Stacks Up Globally

When comparing recycling rates globally, the US has room for improvement. A 2020 study by the environmental analysis firm, Verisk Maplecroft, ranked the US 20th out of 21 high-income countries in terms of waste generation and recycling.

The study found that while the US produces 12% of global municipal waste, it only recycles 35% of its waste.

In contrast, countries such as Germany, Austria, and South Korea demonstrate much higher recycling rates, reaching up to 60%. These countries attribute their success to comprehensive waste management policies, widespread public education, and high landfill fees that incentivize recycling.

Sectors Boosting US Recycling Rates

Although there are evident challenges in US recycling practices, several sectors contribute positively to recycling rates:

  • Automotive Sector: The automotive recycling industry is the 16th largest in the US, contributing $25 billion per year to the GDP. The industry is noted for its high recycling rates, especially for materials like steel.
  • Electronic Waste (E-waste) Sector: E-waste recycling has been a growing focus, driven by the rapid turnover of electronic devices. Various regulations and industry-led initiatives have boosted the recycling rates for e-waste, though it remains a small fraction of the overall waste stream.
  • Construction and Demolition (C&D) Sector: C&D waste often includes materials like concrete, wood, and metals, which are highly recyclable. Various states have implemented regulations to encourage recycling in this sector.

Addressing Barriers to US Recycling

Improving the US recycling rates requires addressing several systemic barriers:

  • Lack of Standardization: Recycling programs vary greatly from one locality to another, causing confusion about what can be recycled. A more standardized approach could help boost recycling rates.
  • Economic Factors: The cost of recycling certain materials, especially plastic, often exceeds the cost of producing new materials. Changing this dynamic requires policy and market interventions to make recycling more economically viable.
  • Public Awareness and Education: Many people are not fully aware of the importance of recycling or how to recycle properly. Increased education and awareness campaigns can help change behaviors and attitudes towards recycling.

Taking these factors into account, it’s clear that boosting US recycling rates requires both individual actions and systemic changes. While individual efforts are indeed crucial, meaningful progress will likely require policy interventions, industry cooperation, and public education on a large scale.

Improving the US Recycling Rates: Recommendations and Guidance

Looking to make a difference? Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Educate Yourself and Others: Understand what can and cannot be recycled in your local community. Recycling rules vary, and non-recyclable items can contaminate entire batches of recyclable materials.
  2. Practice Proper Sorting: Separate your waste appropriately. Correct sorting is critical to the recycling process.
  3. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle: Before recycling, consider if you can reduce consumption or reuse items. Prioritizing these actions can have even greater environmental benefits.
  4. Compost at Home: Composting organic waste at home is a practical way to reduce food waste and produce nutrient-rich soil.

Note: While individual efforts are significant, institutional action is crucial. Support policies and companies that prioritize sustainable practices.


In short, the US recycles about a third of its total waste, with recycling rates varying significantly by material type. While we’ve made strides in areas like paper and yard trimmings, there’s still much work to do, particularly in tackling plastic waste.

To enhance these rates, we must commit to educating ourselves, practicing proper waste sorting, and prioritizing reduction, reuse, and recycling. Remember, every action counts in our collective journey towards a more sustainable future.


What percentage of waste does the US recycle?

As of 2018, the US recycled about 32% of its total waste.

What material is most commonly recycled in the US?

Paper and paperboard have the highest recycling rate, with approximately 68.2% recycled in 2018.

How can I contribute to higher recycling rates?

You can contribute by educating yourself and others, practicing proper waste sorting, reducing and reusing before recycling, and composting at home.

Why are recycling rates important?

Recycling rates help conserve finite resources, improve energy efficiency, and mitigate climate change. They reflect our commitment to sustainability.

What are the challenges with plastic waste management?

Plastic recycling rates are low due to factors like the complexity of sorting different types of plastics, contamination issues, and market dynamics that often make virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic.


  • Chris Chamberlan

    Chris Chamberlan, passionate animal welfare activist and USC graduate, conducted undercover RSPCA missions exposing slaughterhouse malpractices. A vegan and advocate for humane treatment, Chris has spoken at international conferences, been involved in vegan outreach, and founded Solarpunk Solutions for sustainability. His blending of animal welfare with eco-living principles for a compassionate future.

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