What percentage of Americans recycle

Disposable nation USA wants a lot - and preferably quickly

By Elena Rüth, published in RECYCLING magazine 23/2011.

Numerous initiatives, websites, blogs and associations create hip and preferably cool and appealing ideas, competitions and internet forums to make it clear to Americans in a humorous and unobtrusive way that they too have to avoid waste and, above all, recycle it better. "Keep America Beautiful" - in German: "Make sure America stays beautiful" - or, alluding to the emergency hotline, "Earth911" or "Disney's Friends for Change" are just three examples of initiatives that try to find sensible ones To make dealing with rubbish attractive.

Since 1997, all these NGOs and associations have come together once a year and celebrate “America Recycles Day” together. A total of 1,500 small and large campaigns were held across the country on this year's Recycles Day on November 15th. The ideas ranged from clean-up actions in parks and other public institutions to factory tours of large recyclers to parades in which “Captain Recycling” took part in superhero guise.

America should stay beautiful

It is not clear to what extent this day will help the consciousness of Americans to slowly change. However, the fact that companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser Bush, Pepsi and LG Electronics are sponsoring this day shows that recycling is also being taken increasingly seriously in the USA. And it should. Because despite good resolutions and ideas, the country is still far behind some European quotas and standards. In 2010, the local environment ministry (EPA) estimates that around 250 million tonnes of municipal waste were generated. That is around 803 kilograms per person. For comparison: the Germans each produced just under 455 kilograms of municipal waste in 2009.

In addition to the high volume of waste, the recycling rate is also not exactly presentable. According to the EPA, 34 percent of municipal waste was recycled in the United States last year. The quota is increasing every year, but the fact remains that almost 54 percent of municipal waste was landfilled at the same time. Nevertheless, American authorities and associations are trying to book the new recycling figures as a great success. That is correct in that they are higher than ever. Nevertheless, the level is still low compared to many other industrialized nations.

"Recycling of plastic bottles reaches record high," announced the American Chemistry Council (ACC) together with the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) in October this year. Since the beginning of the partial separate collection of bottles in 1990, the recycling rate has increased from one to 29 percent, the associations proudly announce. Compared to 2009 alone, the rate has increased by one percent. A total of 1.18 million tons were recycled last year. According to the announcement, around 94 percent of all Americans are now able to hand in their plastic bottles separately. There is no obligation or deposit. In contrast, only around 40 percent have access to recycling options for plastic waste other than bottles.

No nationwide concept

"In principle, there is no national recycling and recovery policy in the USA," criticized Craig Cookson from the ACC at this year's Identiplast conference in Madrid. “Disposal is not only regulated differently in each state, but sometimes even from municipality to municipality.” At the same time, it is still very cheap to dump garbage in the USA. “There is very little waste that cannot be dumped at all. For everyone else, the fees are very low, ”said the ACC representative.

The total landfill quota for plastic waste is correspondingly high: 80 percent is still disposed of in rubbish dumps. Around seven percent is recycled, the rest is used to generate energy. According to the EPA, a total of around 2.12 million tons of plastic waste was recycled nationwide in 2009. Of these, around 387,000 tons were plastic bags and foils. "There are around 12,000 collection points across the country for this," said Cookson. However, since the recycling rate in this segment is just under nine percent, its success can be viewed as moderate. Above all, the concept of collecting in the shops themselves hardly makes sense, since most consumers take the packaging home with them and then throw it away there. Slightly less than half of the separately collected slides were exported. The ACC is trying to influence companies to keep the quantities in their own country.

In the area of ​​plastic packaging - with the exception of bottles - around 213,000 tons were recycled in the USA in 2009. Compared to 2008 this is an increase of almost 33 percent. Here, too, almost half of the waste was exported - the majority to China. "The main focus of ACC is on putting more containers in order to collect more plastic packaging," says Cookson. City administrations are currently working on plans to significantly expand the collection.

Principle of voluntariness

North Americans are still a long way from collecting household items separately. The principle of voluntariness still applies almost exclusively. Citizens are encouraged to deliver the waste separately to certain places or to throw them into containers. In addition to the days of action and other animation programs, the government is also relying on the economic conscience: "In 2009, waste plastics worth 485 million dollars were wasted," calculates the Ministry of the Environment. "1,000 households could comfortably live on this money for ten years."