The Complete Guide to Recycling in the United States

Recycling has become an essential practice for preserving the environment in the United States. Proper recycling and better waste management reduces waste sent to landfills, conserves natural resources, reduces pollution, saves energy, and even creates jobs. With recycling rates differing greatly across the U.S., there is still room for improvement nationwide.

Recycling in Buffalo

An Introduction to Recycling

Recycling is the process of collecting used, old, or waste materials and processing them to make new products. This reused material can include paper, plastic, glass, electronics, and more.
Recycling offers many benefits:

  • Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
  • Conserves natural resources and raw materials needed to create new products
  • Reduces pollution caused by waste and manufacturing new materials
  • Saves energy as reprocessing recycled materials requires less energy than creating products from new raw materials
  • Creates jobs and boosts the economy through the recycling industry
  • Generates revenue from the sale of recycled materials

How the Recycling Process Works

Recycling follows five key steps:

  1. Collection – Consumers place recyclable materials into recycling bins or dumpster rentals which are then transported to a materials recovery facility.
  2. Sorting – Materials are sorted by type at the recovery facility through manual and automated processes.
  3. Processing – The sorted materials are processed and cleaned using various equipment to prepare for manufacturing.
  4. Manufacturing – The processed recycled materials are remade into new products.
  5. Buying – Consumers purchase products containing recycled content, completing the recycling loop.

Recycling Rates Across the U.S.

Recycling participation varies greatly across the United States. Some states recycle over 60% of waste while others recycle less than 20%.
According to the EPA, the national recycling rate was 32.1% in 2018. The states with the highest recycling rates include:

  • Oregon – 59%
  • Maine – 56%
  • Vermont – 49%
  • Massachusetts – 47%
  • New York – 46%

The states recycling the lowest percentages of waste are:

  • Louisiana – 10%
  • Arkansas – 13%
  • Alabama – 15%
  • Mississippi – 17%
  • Idaho – 18%

Top 10 Benefits of Recycling

Improving recycling practices across the U.S. can significantly benefit the environment and economy. Here are 10 key advantages of recycling:

1. Reduces Waste in Landfills

Recycling diverts millions of tons of waste from landfills each year. This preserves landfill space, reduces siting new landfills, and avoids harmful methane released from waste decaying in landfills.

2. Prevents Pollution

Not recycling causes increased pollution from manufacturing new products and improper waste disposal. Recycling reduces air, water, and land pollution.

3. Saves Energy and Natural Resources

Making goods from recycled materials uses up to 75% less energy than producing items from raw materials. Recycling also reduces the need to extract new natural resources like timber, metal ores, and crude oil.

4. Creates Jobs and Boosts the Economy

The U.S. recycling industry employs nearly 700,000 workers across collection, processing plants, and manufacturing of recycled goods. This generates billions in revenue and economic activity.

5. Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The EPA estimates recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions by over 180 million metric tons of carbon equivalent annually in the U.S. This fights climate change.

6. Saves Clean Water

Recycling paper, cardboard, and plastics conserves gallons of water that would be used in manufacturing. Recycled aluminum cans save enough energy to power over 350,000 homes annually!

7. Promotes Sustainability

Recycling helps establish a closed-loop system that reuses materials rather than sending them to landfills. This allows sustainability of resources for current and future generations.

8. Generates Revenue

Increasing recycling creates a valuable supply of recyclable materials that can be sold to manufacturers as feedstock for new products. This raises revenue for local recycling programs.

9. Reduces Use of Landfills

Landfills are costly to build and maintain while impacting surrounding communities. Recycling maximizes existing landfill capacity and avoid dumpster rentals.

10. Prevents Toxic Incineration Emissions

Burning trash, especially plastics, produces toxic emissions extremely harmful to human and environmental health. Recycling reduces the need for waste incineration.

Key Statistics on Recycling in America

  • In 2018, 292 million tons of municipal solid waste was generated in the United States. Of that, nearly 92 million tons were recycled and composted.
  • The average American generates 4.9 pounds of individual waste daily.
  • Around 75% of America’s waste is recyclable, yet only 30% is actually recycled.
  • 80% of products in U.S. landfills could have been recycled.
  • 9% of disposed plastics were recycled in 2018. Most end up in landfills or oceans.
  • The most commonly recycled materials are paper and cardboard, making up about 65% of all recycled products.
  • Plastics labeled #1 and #2, like water bottles, milk jugs, and detergent bottles, are among the most frequently recycled plastics.
  • Old aluminum cans are the most recycled item in the U.S., with an impressive recycling rate of nearly 70%.
  • E-waste such as computers, TVs and phones make up 70% of overall toxic waste in landfills. However, only about 20% of e-waste is recycled.

How to Recycle Correctly

While recycling programs differ by location, following standard best practices ensures you recycle properly.

Know Your Local Rules

  • Check with your city or local waste company to know what is accepted for curbside recycling in your area. Recyclables may include plastics, paper, cardboard, glass, and metals.
  • Sort accepted items into your curbside recycling bin. Leave out any unaccepted materials.
    Prepare and Separate Materials
  • Empty all containers and rinse excess residue – for example, liquid from soda cans.
  • Never place recyclables in plastic bags. Instead, put directly into your bin.
  • Keep different materials separated – cardboard flattened, paper stacked, plastics together. Avoid contaminated recyclables.

Use Proper Bins

  • Place your recycling bin at the curb on the correct day for pickup, spaced 3-4 feet from trash and yard waste bins.
  • Make sure you have enough bin space for all your recyclables so none spill or blow away. Upgrade bin size if needed.
  • Do not place hazardous waste, electronics, or yard waste like branches in recycling bins.

Recycle Beyond the Curb

  • Bring eligible plastics, glass, paper, and more to local drop-off recycling centers. Some accept items not in curbside programs.
  • Recycle used motor oil, batteries, light bulbs, paints and other household hazardous waste at designated drop-off locations.
  • Donate gently used textiles and clothing to charities and collection bins when possible. 

Top 10 Recyclable Household Items

Focus first on recycling these common household products and materials:
1. Aluminum Cans – Beverage cans are endlessly recyclable and easy to crush and recycle.
2. Paper – Newspapers, magazines, catalogs, mail, paper bags, office paper, and cardboard can be recycled.
3. Plastic Bottles and Containers – Recycle plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs labeled #1 PET and #2 HDPE.
4. Glass – Food jars, beverage bottles, and other glass can be recycled repeatedly back into new glass.
5. Steel Cans – Tin food cans and empty aerosol cans can be recycled magnetically during processing.
6. Milk and Juice Cartons – Rinse and flatten cartons and juice boxes to recycle.
7. Plastic Bags – Clean, dry and bundle plastic retail bags, then bring to major retailers for recycling.
8. Electronics – Don’t trash; donate or recycle TVs, PCs, tablets, cell phones, and small appliances.
9. Batteries – Rechargeable batteries are widely recyclable. Drop off single-use AAs, AAAs, Cs, Ds, 9Vs.
10. Light Bulbs – CFLs and LEDs are recyclable. Return to retailers, manufacturers or community programs.

Overcoming Top Recycling Mistakes

Avoiding common recycling errors ensures your efforts aren’t wasted. Watch out for these top recycling mistakes:
Wrong Bin – Only place accepted recyclables in proper curbside bins, not wishcycled items that seem recyclable. No plastic bags, foam, clothes, yard waste or trash!
Unrinsed and Dirty Items – Food residue or grease left in containers can contaminate recycling batches. Quickly rinse off any bottles, cans, containers.
Unsorted Mix of Materials – Keeping paper, glass, plastic, cans and cardboard separated ensures proper sorting and processing. Don’t mix together.
Bagged Recyclables – Never place recyclables in plastic bags or they’ll be sorted as waste. Always empty directly into bins. Bring plastic bags to retail drop-off sites.
Non-Recyclable Plastics – Avoid using and recycling plastic packaging labeled #3-7. Do not recycle plastic bags, coffee pods, or polystyrene foam cups and takeout containers.
Flattened Milk Cartons and Juice Boxes – Make sure to flatten cartons and boxes or else they’ll get tangled in sorting equipment. Remove straws and caps.
Damaged Glass or Containers – Broken glass is hazardous and unwanted in recycling systems. Avoid cracked, broken, or sharp pieces.
No Wishcycling! – Wishcycling is tossing questionable items in recycling hoping they’ll get recycled. Only recycle what you know is accepted in your program.

Tips to Boost Your Recycling Efforts

Try these suggestions to expand your recycling habits:
Recycle Beyond the Curb – Take additional plastics, batteries, lightbulbs and other items to retailer programs or local drop-off sites.
Buy Recycled Products – Close the recycling loop by purchasing recycled-content paper towels, office supplies, furniture and more.
Compost Food Scraps – Compost fruit peels, coffee grounds and plate scraps instead of the trash. Use compost to nourish your garden!
Reduce Waste – Cut back on plastics and disposable items. Bring reusable bags, mugs, bottles and containers when shopping and eating out.
Donate Used Goods – Give gently used clothes, books, furniture and housewares a second life at charities, schools, thrift shops, libraries and shelters.
Recycle Ink Cartridges – Many stores offer drop boxes to recycle old printer ink cartridges.
Buy in Bulk – Choose large sizes or bulk quantities to reduce product packaging waste. Recycle the outer packaging.
Cancel Unwanted Mailings – Decline junk mail, catalogs and circulars to reduce paper waste. Remove your name from mailing lists.
Print Less and Go Digital – Read documents and statements online instead of printing. Set printers to double-sided.
Recharge Batteries – Use rechargeable batteries for devices and tools. They’ll save your money and eliminate waste.

Answering Common Recycling Questions

Can pizza boxes be recycled?

Grease-stained pizza boxes cannot be recycled. But you can tear off any unsoiled sections and recycle just those cardboard pieces.

How do I recycle old electronics?

Donate working electronics to charity. Recycle computers, TVs, phones and more at retailers, manufacturers, communities, or e-waste recycling events.

Why is it important to recycle plastic bags separately?

Plastic bags jam sorting facility conveyor belts and contaminate recycled materials. Return clean, dry plastic bags to major retailers with plastic bag recycling bins.


The United States must continue expanding recycling to reduce waste, conserve resources, and protect the planet. While recycling programs still vary geographically, following best waste management practices ensures you properly recycle all accepted materials in your community. Supporting recycled products, minimizing waste, and educating others also enables environmental stewardship through recycling. With more sustainable participation, the U.S. can significantly increase national recycling rates and lead the transition towards a greener circular economy.