Sponsored By

EREF Study Sheds New Light on Recycling’s ImpactEREF Study Sheds New Light on Recycling’s Impact

Allan Gerlat

September 11, 2015

6 Min Read
EREF Study Sheds New Light on Recycling’s Impact

Recycling is creating a positive impact on the U.S. economy, and both the amount of waste generated and the tonnage of recyclables processed is significantly higher than estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to a new comprehensive study by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF).

In the study, debuted at the Waste360 Recycling Summit, the Raleigh, N.C.-based EREF verified nearly 3,500 active recycling facilities in the United States, more than double previous estimates.

There are 3,457 recycling facilities, compared with 1,652 in previous estimates. That includes 778 material recovery facilities (MRFs) compared with 590 estimated earlier.

EREF’s calculation of the number of composting facilities was hugely larger than previous estimates–3,654 to 509. Figures were closer on landfills and waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. EREF determined there are 1,637 landfills, compared with 1,802 previously. EREF pegged WTE units at 80 versus 94. EREF says its landfill figure doesn't include construction and demolition (C&D) landfills and EPA's data does.

That brings total waste and recycling operations to 8,828 facilities, according to EREF. Previous estimates total 4,057.

EREF pegged annual tons processed per facility at 5,000 for composting; 71,000 for recycling (at MRFs, which are nearly three times higher than the recycling average of 26,000); 253,000 for landfills; and 301,000 for WTE.

 Comparing number of facilities and tons per facility, the study shows that landfills and WTE operations are highly centralized; composting and recycling are highly decentralized.

The EREF study identified where the recycling facilities are located. The Midwest accounts for the biggest percentage of the units at 28 percent. The Mountains/Plains region accounts for the smallest percentage, at 5 percent.

The number of facilities and the percentage that are MRFs per region are: Midwest, 975, 17 percent; Southeast, 741, 23 percent; Northeast, 636, 29 percent; Pacific, 582, 29 percent; South Central, 347, 15 percent; and Mountains/Plains, 176, 20 percent.

By state, California has the most recycling facilities, followed by Missouri and Washington.

For recyclables, 62 percent pass through MRFs versus 38 percent processed by non-MRFs. 

EREF estimated the amount of waste generated in the United States is 128.4 million tons higher than EPA numbers. It represents a 50-percent difference in tonnage and suggests that the United States generates significantly more waste that is managed by the solid waste industry.

While EREF’s estimate of the national recycling rate is comparable to that given by the EPA (23 percent vs. 25 percent), the research association found that the tonnage of recyclables processed is nearly 40 percent higher.

EREF puts municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in 2013 at 382.5 million tons, or 6.8 pounds per person per day. Collectively about 28 percent is recycled or composted. About 89.1 million tons are recycled, or about 1.6 pounds per person per day.

Compared with the EPA, about 13 percent more MSW goes to the landfill, according to the EREF data. The composting and WTE tonnages are half of what the EPA estimates.

Also during its presentation at the Recycling Summit, the EREF team discussed the differences in recycling policies and goals across the United States and how those differences in definitions can vary in each city and state. The association developed and provided a definitional framework that highlights how officials can base recycling goals on measurable metrics. It presented a national picture of how much recycling is occurring and highlighted differences between states and regions.

In addition, EREF explored the differences in types of recycling facilities that exist nationwide and discussed how trends in waste generation and recycling policies may affect future efforts.

In all, 43 states have some sort of recycling or waste diversion goal, says Debra Kantner, internal research program manager for EREF. The goals fall into three categories: incremental, numeric goals with target dates; flat numeric goals with target dates; and numeric goals or a future target date.

The majority of targets–80 percent–fall into being numeric goals with a target date without incremental goals. For 31 states, the target date has passed and there's been no new legislation to adjust or update the goals.

The goals have four categories: increasing recycling; improving recycling and composting; diverting waste from landfills or WTE facilities; and reducing waste disposal. The vast majority are recycling goals.

Thre are a wide range in the value of numeric targets, she says. Florida, for example, has a 75 percent recycling goal (by 2020). At the other end, it goes down to Oklahoma, which has 10 percent goal (by 2011).

The wide divergence prompts the question:  What is recycling? “A consistent definitional framework is really needed ... That would allow for meaningful comparisons between sets and meaningful benchmarks,” Kantner said.

“Recycling practices across the United States vary widely. These practices are significantly influenced by the policies and goals set by state/local agencies and the implementation of recycling programs within the community,” said Bryan Staley, EREF president and CEO, in a news release prior to the presentation. “Our team took a look at the national picture of what is happening across the industry to create a new structure of measureable metrics. Previous estimates of recycling facilities identified less than 1,700 recycling facilities. Thus, this study is one of the most comprehensive efforts thus far on quantifying the extent of recycling occurring in the United States.”

Added Warren Bimblick, group president for New York-based Penton, which operates Waste360, the Recycling Summit and WasteExpo, “This is fantastic news for the recycling industry. As the only research organization of its kind dedicated to the recycling industry, I am very pleased that EREF chose to share the exciting results with the industry at the Summit. The economic benefits outlined by EREF highlight the societal value provided by the recycling industry and the potential for future growth as it continues to gain momentum.”

Said Sharon Kneiss, president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA), which produced the Recycling Summit along with Waste360, "EREF’s thorough research shines an important light on the future of recycling. This new data provides an important platform through which we can collaborate with our members and partners to achieve the right balance between the economical and ecological health of recycling. We are pleased with the exceptional substance of this event, including EREF's research release in addition to the education sessions we have curated in conjunction with Penton Waste360 that have provided value to Summit attendees.”

The EREF report includes 2013 and 2010 data, such as state/regional statistics, public versus private analysis and landfill, WTE, composting and other organics facility level information. It also includes how recycling is collected and final destinations. EREF anticipates its full release this fall.

The Waste360 Recycling Summit, taking place Sept. 9-11, examines the critical issues surrounding recycling and sustainability and has brought together industry thought leaders, practitioners, customers and manufacturers to discuss the industry challenges and opportunities.

David Bodamer, executive director, content, contributed to this story.


About the Author(s)

Allan Gerlat

News Editor, Waste360

Allan Gerlat joined the Waste360 staff in September 2011 as news editor. He was the editor of Waste & Recycling News for the first 16 years of its history, and under his guidance the publication won 27 national and regional awards.

Before Waste & Recycling News, Allan worked at another Crain Communications publication, Rubber & Plastics News, which covers rubber product manufacturing. He began with the publication as associate editor and eventually became managing editor, a position he held for nine years.

Allan is a graduate of Ohio University, where he earned a BS in journalism. He is based in Sagamore Hills, in northeast Ohio.

Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.