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How Much Can We Recycle?

A friend of mine likes to say the only thing wrong with recycling rates is the numerator and the denominator. I was reminded of this when I read about a study suggesting the 91.4 percent recycling rate for cardboard boxes, also known as old corrugated containers (OCC), is too high.

Chaz Miller

September 28, 2022

3 Min Read
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90 percent or 50 percent or…

          A friend of mine likes to say the only thing wrong with recycling rates is the numerator and the denominator. I was reminded of this when I read about a study suggesting the 91.4 percent recycling rate for cardboard boxes, also known as old corrugated containers (OCC), is too high. 

Speaking at the recent Resource Recycling Conference, Myles Cohen and Ryan Fox took a thorough look at that claim. They concluded that 69 percent is a more accurate box recycling rate. Why? Because the higher recycling percentage includes boxes made overseas and used to ship products to this country (the numerator) but it does not include them in the total boxes used in this country (the denominator). To be accurate, those boxes have to be in both.

The American Forest and Paper Association defended its number. It argued that all boxes collected for recycling are in the numerator, regardless of their origin, but that it is impossible to estimate the number imported (the denominator). That explanation rings hollow. Perhaps the most telling proof is the expanded capacity for using recycled content in the North American paper industry. If boxes were recycled at more than a 90 percent rate, no bank in the world would have financed any of the new capacity. The cost of increasing the recycling rate for such a small amount of available boxes would be prohibitively high.

And if you think I’m wrong, visit a transfer station and see how many boxes from both residential and commercial sources are in the trash. That’s why my home county’s Aiming For Zero Waste Task Force made increasing box recycling a priority.  Montgomery County, Maryland, has a recycling rate in the low 40 percent range. That’s not bad for a county without a food waste collection program. When the Task Force visited the county transfer station we saw way too many boxes in the trash, not the recycling bin. So we urged the county to do better.

But let me make one thing absolutely clear. The paper industry does an outstanding job recycling its products. If every industry in America did as well, we wouldn’t be worried about recycling. 

Unfortunately, goofy recycling claims are not uncommon. Recycle BC recently claimed a 101 percent paper recovery rate in that province.  For years, San Francisco claimed to “divert” 80 percent of its waste from disposal. It doesn’t. Although by all accounts, their recycling rate is slightly above 50 percent. That isn’t shabby by any means.

Seattle is an example of a local government that uses accurate data to analyze and methodically work to improve its recycling program. Yet in spite of its best efforts, its recycling rate is 54 percent and has gone down slowly over the last four years.

Accurate numbers tell us where we are. They point to strengths and deficiencies in our programs. They also suggest limits. Seattle’s experience, along with that of other high-performing American cities, suggests that reaching a 50 percent recycling rate (including organics) is challenging. Going higher is even more challenging. 

Too many legislators and recycling advocates don’t want to admit that not every American cares about recycling. Yet, according to a SWANA study, about 25 percent of the population is indifferent and another 20 percent want to do the right thing, but struggle. Those numbers don’t surprise me. Like it or not, recycling isn’t a big priority for everyone.

If we want to make recycling stronger, we need to accept its limitations. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about what recycling can achieve. If we don’t, we will just be spinning our wheels in the pursuit of unattainable goals.

About the Author(s)

Chaz Miller

Semi-retired, 40-year veteran of the waste and recycling industry, National Waste & Recycling Association

Chaz Miller is a longtime veteran of the waste and recycling industry.

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