Waste and Recycling in the United States

There is no producer responsibility legislation for packaging in place in the United States. Individual and regional municipalities are responsible for waste collection, diversion and disposal. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there were approximately 9,000 curbside recycling programs nationwide in 2009, up from 8,875 in 2002[1].

According to a study conducted by RW Beck on behalf of the American Beverage Association, an estimated 229 million Americans, or 74 percent of the total population, have access to some form of curbside recycling at home[2] . The most commonly recycled materials are aluminum cans, glass bottles, newspaper, paperboard packaging, plastic bottles and steel cans. These programs vary widely in terms of the types of material collected and how the consumer must sort the materials into different bins for pickup. In some cases, residents contract (subscribe) directly with a waste management operator in the community for removal of both waste and recycling. This is the case in parts of the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest.

Diversion from landfill for voluntary curbside programs is consequently low. The national diversion rate for recyclable materials, as measured against all municipal solid waste generated in 2009, hovered around 25%, as reported by the Environmental Protection Agency [3].

Faced with growing pressure from local governments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored a dialogue process in 2010 for state and local government entities, brand owners, and NGOs to discuss options for sustainable financing and optimal performance of municipal systems for recycling of post-consumer packaging and printed materials. Many of the industry representatives are reported to be strongly opposed to highlighting EPR as the preferred strategy for addressing the problem at this time. The EPA’s dialogue process has come to an end, but other organizations, including the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, have voiced their interest in potentially carrying forward some of the outcomes from the two working groups.

Finally, it is noteworthy to mention that although EPR for packaging is unlikely to be enacted in the US in the near term, U.S. states have recently experienced a rapid expansion in the adoption of EPR programs and in the introduction of legislation. EPR legislation in the U.S. tends to focus on a single material at a time, and to date, has targeted waste streams such as mercury switches, fluorescent light bulbs, thermostats, etc.

[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009-fs.pdf

[2] 2008 ABA Community Survey, American Beverage Association, prepared by RW Beck, Septembre 2009.

[3] “Use of LCA to identify more efficient strategies for solid waste planning,” webinar presentation given by S. Thorneloe, U.S. EPA, June 9, 2010.

United States of America


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