State of the Nation

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the national recycling rate for municipal solid waste increased from approximately 16 percent in 1990 to about 29 percent in 2000. It has been relatively stagnant since then, rising to its current rate of 32 percent. To address this slowing trend, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works ordered the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess federal efforts to encourage recycling and to survey recycling interests around the country to discern best practices and what more could be done.

The resulting report, titled “Additional Efforts Could Increase Municipal Recycling” and undersigned by Department of Natural Resources and Environment Director John B. Stephenson, notes that federal support of recycling to this point has been largely symbolic. It cites EPA's WasteWise and Resource Conservation Challenge initiatives as steps in the right direction, but notes that these programs lack performance measures to gauge their impact on recycling rates. The authors also point out the Department of Commerce's failure to meet its obligations under Subtitle E of the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act (RCRA), particularly in the stimulation of domestic markets for recyclables (the department was, however, credited with working to stimulate international trade in recyclables).

For the report, GAO interviewed recycling coordinators in 11 cities around the country. Among the practices cited as most effective in increasing recycling in their municipalities were 1) making recycling convenient for residents, 2) offering financial incentives for recycling, and 3) conducting public education and outreach.

Convenient recycling was most often defined as curbside collection using free bins, accessible drop-off locations and weekly service coordinated with trash collection. The report offers several examples of financial incentives for recycling, such as basing collection fees on the size of garbage cans (recycling more allows residents to use a smaller can), a bill credit for properly sorting or packaging recyclables, and a Philadelphia pilot program called “Recycle Bank,” which rewards residents with coupons redeemable at local retailers based on the weight of recyclables collected. Suggestions for public outreach ran the gamut from mass media ad campaigns to education programs in public schools.

Also key, according to the GAO's findings, are targeting a wide range of materials (such as food waste, yard waste and electronics), extending recycling programs to the commercial sector (including restaurants, retailers and office buildings), targeting multi-unit dwellings, and mandating recycling where possible.

The recycling stakeholders interviewed also suggested several federal policies that could improve recycling. Among those most often cited were 1) establishing a nationwide campaign to educate the public about recycling, 2) a national “bottle bill” that would provide a financial incentive for the return of beverage containers, and 3) requiring manufacturers to establish “take-back” programs that allow consumers to recycle their products.

The report notes strengths and weaknesses of each of these suggestions. A national media campaign would almost certainly raise awareness, but might also fail to provide geographically specific information. Bottle bills have proven effective in the states where they have been implemented, but have the potential to cannibalize curbside totals and alienate retailers, beverage producers, and consumers. And large-scale take-back programs, while ideal for difficult-to-recycle products like electronics, carpet and paint, are costly and logistically daunting with few financial incentives.

Other federal policy options identified include a national conference or online database that would allow municipal recyclers to share best practices, the expansion of EPA research into the economic and environmental benefits of recycling, additional grant money for recycling projects, reducing or removing subsidies to industries that extract virgin materials, and providing targeted subsidies to the recycling industry.

The complete report can be downloaded at