In what is being touted as the first study of its kind, an environmental consultancy known as Eunomia ranked all 50 U.S. states in terms of its recycling efforts. The study was conducted with support from Ball Corporation. It proves a number of things we have known innately for years.
The ‘50 States of Recycling‘ report focuses particularly on cardboard, plastics, aluminum and steel cans, and glass. It also looks at whether or not states had deposit return systems in place. A deposit return system is essentially a ‘bottle bill’ that requires consumers pay a deposit on every bottle they purchase. Bottles can be redeemed to recover the deposit.
The top five states by grade are Maine, Vermont. Massachusetts, Oregon, and Connecticut. The bottom five are West Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, Tennessee, and South Carolina With that said, below are five highlights from the study. All are things we have known innately.
1. Recycling Is a Money Issue
Like it or not, the success or failure of any recycling program is rooted in financials. The study proves this by demonstrating that eight of the top ten states have bottle bills in place. Their recycling efforts are pushed further by the fact that people can make money returning bottles for deposit.
You and I may not make a concerted effort to return bottles, but scout troops will do it. So will local boys’ and girls’ clubs. There are all sorts of organizations willing to conduct bottle drives to raise money. And yes, there are individuals who do it too. Why? Because they have a monetary incentive.
2. Not All Recycling Is Equal
The study proves that not all recycling efforts are equal. In other words, it is far more costly to recycle consumer plastics compared to commercial plastic waste. That’s why a company like Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics can make money on baled PET while cities all across the country are shutting down their recycling programs because no one wants to buy their plastics.
3. Collection Does Not Equal Recycling
Along the same lines as the previous point, the study demonstrates that collection does not necessarily mean recycling. The vast majority of consumer plastics collected by local trash haulers is never recycled. It is either buried in a landfill or incinerated. More than 90% of the plastic collected at curbside are buried or burned.
4. Cardboard and PET Are Easy
When you look at what all of the top states are recycling, it becomes apparent that cardboard and PET bottles are the clear winners. For example, eight of the top ten states recycle 70% or more of their cardboard. Maine has the highest PET bottle rate at 78%.
What can we glean from this? That cardboard and PET bottles are easy to recycle. Neither one requires a tremendous amount of expense or effort. Moreover, there is a market for both. Municipalities willing to focus on them can actually do quite well.
5. Curbside Programs Don’t Work
Finally, the study explicitly says that “it is not possible to reach such high recycling rates through curbside systems alone.” We have been sold a bill of goods where curbside recycling is concerned. It doesn’t work as well as we have been led to believe. In many cities, it does not work at all. Anyone who would doubt that need only look at the data.
The Eunomia study may be the first of its kind, but most of what it reveals we have known for some time. Perhaps having hard data will force those in decision-making positions to rethink public policy. One can only hope.