Study Finds 73% of U.S. Consumers Have Access to Curbside Recycling Programs

RRS SPC Recycling Program Access Study coverJuly 26, 2016, Ann Arbor, Mich. – Sustainability and recycling consultancy, Resource Recycling Systems (RRS), announced the release of results from an industry collaborative study on the national availability of recycling programs. The study, organized and commissioned by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), differs from previous studies in that:

  • Single- and multi-family recycling availability was evaluated at a high level of detail.
  • Types of curbside recycling programs – opt-in, subscription, automatic/universal – were identified.
  • An independent review process was utilized to evaluate education practices the public encounters with their programs.

The study examined the prevalence of consumer recycling programs across the United States and the acceptance of 49 types of packaging in those programs, providing substantiation data for packaging recyclability claims and painting a national portrait of the characteristics of recycling programs offered to consumers.

The study was conducted by sustainability and recycling consultancies RRS and Moore Recycling Associates.

Two groups of communities were identified for the study: 1) 1,600 communities consisting of the largest communities in each state representing 50 percent of each state’s population and 50 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, and 2) a random sampling of 500 smaller communities with representation from each state and a selection of urban, rural and suburban community types.

The team evaluated publically available recycling program information and determined recycling service availability. In addition, telephone interviews were conducted with programs that required further clarification of program guidelines, opt-in or subscription programs that may shield their program guidelines, and material recovery facilities (MRFs) to clarify material acceptance.

Data analysis determined rates of recycling availability by commodity, type of service, region and community size.

“We wanted to commission the most unified and robust study possible, and we needed full engagement from industry, government, and NGOs in order to make that possible,” said Adam Gendell, Associate Director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “We’re very encouraged by this unprecedented level of collaboration and we feel strongly that our study has provided the best most comprehensive set of information on recycling program availability to date.”

Key findings include:

  • Curbside programs are available to 73% of the US population, with 53% of the population having curbside recycling “automatically” provided at their home, while the other 20% has a type of subscription or opt-in recycling program available.
  • For 21% of the population, drop-off recycling programs are the only programs available.
  • Of the portion of the population with a subscription or opt-in curbside recycling program available, about one third are estimated to elect to participate in the program and receive their curbside receptacle.
  • Taking into account estimates of the portion of the population that elects to participate in subscription or opt-in curbside recycling programs, 60% of the US population has a curbside recycling receptacle.
  • Almost 90% of residents with single-family curbside recycling programs now have single stream collection.
  • Only 21% of the US population is estimated to live in communities providing a uniform collection program to residents of all building types – single-family homes, small multi-family buildings, and large multi-family complexes.
  • Large rolling carts for recycling collection are now used by at least 44% of residents with single-family curbside recycling programs, and are used by more programs than use traditional recycling bins.

“This study reaffirmed that the vast majority of Americans have an opportunity to recycle, but it also highlights the fact that convenient access to recycling is far from universal,” said Keefe Harrison, executive director of the Recycling Partnership. “Now we have a national benchmark and an imperative to carry this collaborative momentum forward and improve these recycling programs.”

The study’s findings on the acceptance of 49 types of packaging in recycling programs provide important substantiation data for industry to make recyclability claims in compliance with the US Federal Trade Commission’s guidance for environmental marketing claims.

“This effort to create a point in time snapshot of recycling availability for 49 different material types in recycling programs across the country is a great step forward for the project partners,” said Jim Frey, CEO of RRS. “Their experience working together to both fund the study and now share the results leads to progress on a long term goal of improving not just the availability of recycling services but their overall success in capturing those recyclables.”

The study was collectively funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Carton Council, Closed Loop Fund, Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA), Can Manufacturers Institute (CMI), Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI), Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, Steel Recycling Institute (SRI) – a business unit of the American Iron and Steel Institute, The Aluminum Association, and The Recycling Partnership.

An advisory council included representation from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The study’s findings on the availability of recycling programs are available at 2015-16 Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling.



About RRS

Founded in 1986 and headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan, RRS is a sustainability and recycling consulting firm that strives to create a world where resources are managed to maximize economic and social benefit while minimizing environmental harm. The firm has cutting-edge industry professionals, engineers, economists, technical analysts, and communication specialists who share this vision and possess core strengths in materials and recovery, life cycle management, applied sustainable design, and collaborative action development. RRS serves both the public and private sectors to manage change in a resource-constrained world.


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