States lead the way: Pioneering recycling efforts in the US

America’s recycling rate has doubled over the past 15 years, but this has occurred in the absence of a federal law on recycling.

America’s recycling rate has doubled over the past 15 years, but this has occurred in the absence of a federal law on recycling. Instead, state legislation and local support have been leading the action.

Waste collection is the responsibility of state and local governments. photo: NSWMA Click here to enlarge image

America does not have a national recycling law. Instead, America has a national solid waste management law called the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). But in spite of its name, RCRA has little to do with resource conservation and even less with resource recovery.

Although the US Congress has not passed a recycling legislation, state laws have transformed recycling in the United States. How has this come about? This article examines the nature of recycling legislation at both national and state levels, and reviews the goals that are shaping the country’s recycling landscape.

Recycling laws at the federal level

Americans produce a large amount of garbage: approximately 360 million tonnes a year, according to a recent survey.1 Americans also recycle and compost approximately 100 million tonnes of solid waste every year. While the overall recovery rate (of about 30%) is less than that found in many other countries, this nevertheless represents a significant increase from two decades ago.

Before the advent of federal and state solid waste legislation, recycling was driven purely by market forces. Prior to Earth Day in 1970, America recycled well under 10% of its waste. Municipal collection programmes were non-existent. Paper was often collected in paper drives organized by Boy Scouts and similar groups. Family-owned scrap dealers bought paper and metal scrap based on the demand by end markets for additional raw materials.

America’s first federal solid waste law, the Solid Waste Disposal Act (SWDA), didn’t even mention recycling. SWDA was a 1965 amendment to the original Clean Air Act. The law created a small federal solid waste office with some research and grant authority.

Eleven years later, Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which remains the cornerstone of federal solid waste and recycling legislation. RCRA abolished open dumps and required the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to write regulations for hazardous waste management and guidelines for solid waste disposal. The hazardous waste regulations were written by the end of the 1970s, but the landfill rules were another decade in the making and did not come into effect until 1991.

In spite of RCRA’s title, the law did little to encourage recycling except to require EPA to write regulations that would increase federal purchases of products made with recycled content. Even that responsibility was ignored for years as EPA concentrated on hazardous waste regulations and then landfill disposal rules. In the early years of RCRA, EPA had a small but active recycling programme. Federal grant funds financed America’s first multi-material kerbside collection recycling programmes (in the state of Massachusetts) along with other recycling projects. EPA published how-to manuals and sponsored kerbside recycling workshops throughout the country. However, the recycling office was closed in 1981.

The rationale behind RCRA

RCRA is unique among national environmental legislation in its declaration that solid waste collection and disposal remained a responsibility of state and local governments. While the federal government retained oversight authority over state solid waste management programmes, the states remained the primary initiators of solid waste and recycling laws and the chief enforcers of landfill regulations. Other environmental laws don’t place this emphasis on local control. Congress realized that air and water pollution, for instance, could easily travel across state lines. The states were not given primary responsibility for regulating air and water pollution. However, local governments traditionally managed solid waste, and their garbage was, and still is, usually landfilled or burned in nearby facilities.

Significantly, RCRA allowed the states to enact solid waste regulations that were more stringent than the federal criteria. While many states choose to adopt the federal rules as written by EPA, others chose to impose additional requirements on landfills. For instance, the EPA landfill rules require a single composite liner for landfills. Pennsylvania and several other states, however, require a double composite liner at landfills. As a result, states and local governments are free to enact whatever solid waste and recycling laws they choose, so long as those laws are at least as stringent as the federal laws. In the absence of federal recycling laws, the states have free run.

Although the RCRA has been amended several times since it was originally passed in 1976, none of the amendments covered recycling. The last major attempt to enact Federal recycling legislation occurred in 1992. That bill would have imposed a number of recycling requirements upon packages, but lacked enough support to come to a vote in either house of Congress The legislation, known as Multi-Option Packaging Strategy (MOPS), passed a House sub-committee but never was voted on by the whole committee nor was considered by the Senate.

State recycling legislation

After the RCRA went into effect, the states moved quickly to establish management programmes for hazardous and solid waste. They moved less quickly on recycling. With the exception of bottle bills, most states did nothing on recycling until the late 1980s. During the 70s and 80s, many state legislatures considered requiring a deposit on beer and soft drink bottles and cans. The goal of the legislation was to prevent container litter and encourage recycling. By the end of the 1980s, 10 states mandated a deposit. Notably, container recycling has higher rates in those states than in the non-deposit states.

Kerbside recycling programmes have dramatically boosted recycling rates in the US. photo: nswma Click here to enlarge image

Two states, Rhode Island and New Jersey, took a more comprehensive approach to recycling in the mid-80s. Both are small, densely populated states with a significant shortage of available land for landfills. In response, they developed trailblazing mandatory recycling legislation. While their approaches differed slightly, they required local governments to offer recycling programmes for a number of materials (at first, this was usually newspaper, glass bottles and metal cans). State officials worked closely with local governments to establish the programmes. Rhode Island went so far as to build a materials recovery facility in 1990 to process the recyclables.

The efforts in those states were bolstered by kerbside recycling programmes that started collecting newspaper in 1970 after Earth Day. In 1976 the first multi-material programmes began collecting cans and glass bottles in addition to newspapers. Over the next decade, the number of kerbside programmes slowly grew until more than 600 were in operation throughout the United States (with most of the programmes in the Northeastern or the West Coast states).

Requirements for recycling differ by state. photo: nswma Click here to enlarge image

And then, in March 1987, a barge loaded with over 2700 tonnes of New York solid waste set sail for a landfill in South Carolina. Refused permission to unload in that state, the ‘garbage barge’ sailed forlornly around the south-eastern coast, never allowed to stop and unload. The Flying Dutchman of garbage became a media event. With the absence of a federal recycling law, the states stepped into the void. By 1991, 39 states and the District of Columbia had passed recycling legislation. The only states that hadn’t were mostly sparsely populated states in the intermountain west and the Great Plains that had low tipping fees for landfills. EPA reopened its recycling office in response to the national demand to do something about waste.

Different types of state legislation

Generally, state recycling legislation falls into one of three categories:2

• mandatory source separation

• planning for recycling

• providing an opportunity to recycle.

Mandatory source separation laws, which are found in seven states and the District of Columbia, require local governments to mandate the separation of at least three materials from the waste stream for recycling. These laws often exclude smaller towns from the source separation requirement. In one state, the source separation requirement only applies to office paper and corrugated boxes generated by businesses. Recycling programmes in the source-separation states became examples of success, and New Jersey and Rhode Island officials became fixtures at state recycling conferences, explaining how their laws had succeeded.

Not all states wished to mandate source separation at the local level. Many states opted to require local governments to develop recycling plans and to meet state recycling or waste reduction goals. For instance, Maryland set a 20% recycling goal for 1994 for urban counties and a 15% goal for rural counties. States varied in how aggressively they enforced the recycling goals. California was the most aggressive in this regard. The Golden State’s recycling law established a 50% waste diversion goal by 2000. Local governments were to submit recycling, source reduction and composting plans indicating how the diversion goal would be met. The law includes a US$10,000 a day fine that can be assessed against jurisdictions that fail to meet the goal. In reality, few local governments are even threatened with the fine. Most want to co-operate with state mandates. However, in a few instances, California state officials have threatened to levy fines against local governments that showed no interest in meeting their legal responsibilities.

In the middle are the dozen states that required local governments to provide an ‘opportunity’ to recycle. While this seems to be more aggressive than just a recycling plan and a state goal, in fact, the recycling ‘requirement’ could be met by a kerbside collection programme or a drop-off centre.

Having outlined the three main types of legislation, one should note that state policy does not always fit within these categories. For example, Wisconsin does not have recycling goals. Instead it has a complex system that bans the landfilling of common recyclables such as newspaper, aluminium or steel cans, and glass bottles, and then rewards those local governments that meet recycling targets. Rural and urban counties are given differing collection targets for these recyclables, with the targets lower in rural counties (82.4 pounds or 37.4 kg per person recycled each year) than in urban areas (106.6 pounds or 48.4 kg per person recycled each year). A local government or group of governments, called a ‘Responsible Unit’ in the Wisconsin law, that meets the target collection rate has an ‘effective recycling programme’ and is exempt from the disposal ban.

US recycling goals

In 2005 the US EPA announced a 35% national recycling goal by 2008. This modest goal was set after the EPA determined that America was recovering through recycling or composting about 30% of our municipal solid waste. Forty-two states also have recycling or waste diversion goals. Most are voluntary. Some come with dates, such as Massachusetts’ goal of achieving 70% waste reduction by 2010. None of the goals was established on a rigorous analysis of how material could be recycled. Instead they are the result of political compromise and hope. Eighteen states have goals to recycle or divert 50% or more of their waste. The other states have set lower goals.


In summary, federal recycling legislation does not exist in America. Instead, state legislation has played a dynamic role in transforming recycling from a supply- and demand-driven business to a legislated reality.

Not surprisingly, the states with the most aggressive requirements, such as New Jersey and California, tend to have the highest recycling rates. America’s recycling rate has doubled to 30% in the 15 years since 1990, when states began to actively promote recycling. State laws wouldn’t stay in effect if it wasn’t for widespread support for recycling at the local level. As long as collection programmes are efficient and economical, that support will continue.

Chaz Miller is Director of State Programs at the National Solid Wastes Management Association




1. ‘Garbage in America’, Biocycle magazine, April 2006, Table 3.

2. ‘Recycling in the States’, National Solid Wastes Management Association, published every year from 1988-1993.

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Legislation after the ‘garbage barge’

In the 15 years since 1991, little of substance has been enacted at the state level. While between 200 and 300 recycling bills are introduced into state legislatures every year, most of them die quickly. Generally the laws that are passed are minor tweaks to existing legislation. California’s recycling laws are so complicated that every year the state leads the nation in the number of recycling bills introduced and passed. Typical of state action was Maryland’s decision in 2000 to create a voluntary 40% waste diversion goal. Maryland’s goal includes a 5% credit for source-reduction activities such as backyard compost pile and ‘grass cycling’ programmes. (‘Grass cycling’ occurs when mown grass is left on the lawn and not placed on compost piles or put in the garbage bins.) Hawaii passed a bottle bill in 2004, but attempts to impose container deposits in other states have failed. Delaware is currently considering a source separation law, but it is unlikely to pass this year. E-waste is the wild card. Six states have enacted statewide electronics product recycling laws. If enough states require e-waste recycling, the Federal Congress will step in and pass a national bill to ensure consistency among the states. (For more information on WEEE recycling in the US, see article starting on page 25).