usa recycling report

Unpacking Two Recent Reports on Recycling in the U.S.

Two recent industry reports—“Sorting It Out: What’s In Our Waste and Where Does It Go?”  presented by Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF) CEO Bryan Staley at WasteExpo last month and “Demystifying MSW Recovery Rates” co-authored by William Moore and Peter Engel, a white paper published in June—provide new takes on the state of recycling in the United States.

EREF’s Tonnage Higher, But Recycling Rate Lower, Than EPA Figures

EREF calculates that the US generated 366 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2013, roughly 44 percent higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) calculation of 254 million tons, also for 2013. The EPA data has long been the industry benchmark.

EREF also estimates that roughly 113 million tons of that total were recovered (either recycled or composted), a rate of 31 percent, versus the EPA’s recovery rate of 34.4 percent, equating to around 87 million tons.

The total recovery rate breaks down into 24 percent recycled and 7 percent composted, according to EREF, versus 25.5 percent recycled and 8.9 percent composted, according to the EPA. EREF figures indicate that 61 percent of MSW is landfilled, versus 53 percent by EPA calculations.

The wide discrepancy appears to be due to the bottom up analysis EREF conducted, versus the top down approach utilized by the EPA.

More Recycling Facilities Operating Than Previously Estimated

Based on its bottom up analysis, EREF was also able to quantify the number and different types of MSW processing facilities. Not surprisingly, given their centralized nature, EREF’s facility count for landfill and waste-to-energy (WTE) is not that different from Waste Business Journal (WBJ), a major industry resource for facility information, but an enormous gap opened up with regard to the number of recycling and composting facilities.

EREF identified 4,006 recycling facilities and 3,654 composting facilities, versus 1,652 and 509, respectively, according to the WBJ 2014 data. The composting and recycling facilities are more decentralized and smaller, processing considerably less tonnage than landfills or WTE plants.

Only 22 percent of the recycling facilities are characterized as materials recovery facilities (MRFs) by the EREF.

More Recycling Color From EREF’s Findings

Recycling facilities are concentrated around population centers, while both coasts have relatively more MRFs as a percentage of total facilities—29 percent, versus a range of 15 percent-23 percent for other areas of the country.

Underlying EREF’s estimation of an average residual rate of 12 percent is a wide range of 3 percent to 51 percent, but there is general agreement that the overall residual rate has nearly doubled in seven years, no doubt due to the proliferation of single-stream recycling facilities. Prior to China’s implementation of the Green Fence (and in an environment of much higher recycled commodity prices), volume was prized over the quality of recycled materials, which has now dramatically reversed.

Using both the EREF’s and EPA’s MSW calculations, most states remain well below their recycling goals. Lastly, despite all the talk of the lightweighting of the recycling stream (more plastics), fiber remains the dominant recycled stream at an average of 69 percent (within a state range of 62 percent to 82 percent), followed by 13 percent glass and 10 percent plastic.

White Paper Breaks Recovery Down Further

Bill Moore of Moore & Associates and Peter Engels of Kessler Consulting employed a compilation of 12 states and 12 local jurisdiction surveys and the EREF and trade association data in their white paper “Demystifying MSW Recovery Rates” in order to reach their new conclusions and incremental recovery breakdowns.

First, they corroborate EREF’s findings that the overall disposal and recovery tonnage is higher than the EPA figures but the recovery rate is lower. The white paper also notes that there is no consistency or common standard in the way that state and local governments measure their recovery rates (and goals), which vary anywhere from less than 10 percent to 75 percent.

But primarily, the paper looks more closely at the industrial, commercial and institutional segment (ICI) versus residential. The authors estimate that 60 percent of MSW, or 220 million tons, is generated by ICI facilities, while the residential sector generates the remaining 40 percent, or about 149 million tons. They then go on to note that most materials recovery occurs in the ICI segment versus residential—roughly 69 million tons versus 20 million tons, or a materials recovery rate of 31 percent versus 14 percent, respectively, more than double! 

Thus, the ICI segment is responsible for 77 percent of materials recovery. Interestingly, organics recovery is much more similar between the two segments, and the residential rate is actually slightly higher—at 9 percent, or 13 million tons, versus 7 percent, or 15 million tons, for ICI, for a total of 38 percent recovery for ICI versus 23 percent for residential. Intuitively, the findings make sense in light of the wealth of evidence that sustainability programs and financial factors continue to drive major companies to achieve recovery rates surpassing the average municipality.

The ICI segment also has the added advantage of large, consistent volumes and a smaller handful of materials to process. The findings certainly shed a new light on the intense focus on residential recycling (be it funding or programs) versus the current efforts being made in the ICI segment. Also similar to EREF, the white paper also notes the predominant role of cardboard and paper recovery.

EREF Report Again Shows Need for More Organics Processing Infrastructure

EREF puts organic tonnage at about 144 million tons, with food waste accounting for 42 percent and yard waste 32 percent. Landfills and composting facilities still manage the majority of organics at 74 percent and 17 percent, respectively, with anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities handling less than 1 percent. The recovery rate of organics is 20 percent, or roughly 28 million tons, with 25 million tons composted (mostly yard waste) and less than 1 million tons going to AD.

As a result, it is not surprising to see food waste in such focus, as it remains a largely untapped recovery source. Composting feedstock is 90 percent yard waste and 8 percent food waste, and composting accounts for the bulk of organics recovery. Similarly, the focus on AD is also logical, although it now makes up such a small percentage of processing capability, as 87 percent of its feedstock is food waste. But, that simply underscores the difficulty in reaching the US food waste reduction goal of 50 percent by 2030—which implies diversion of 26.5 million tons (53 million tons is currently landfilled)—as that is roughly ten times the current processing level of 2.7 million tons of food waste per year.

Leone Young is the principal of LTY ERC, LLC, providing consulting and research services to, and conducting special projects for, the environmental services industry, primarily the solid waste sector. 

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