Recycling Envy: Ten American Cities with Excellent Practices (2022)

In 2018, the most recent data available as of February 2022, the United States sent 146.1 million tons of trash to landfills. This is over seven million more tons of waste than in 2017. In our age of innovation and awareness, the United States recycled or composted only 32.1 percent of its municipal solid waste (MSW), according to the Environmental Protection Association. A decrease from the 35.2 percent of 2017.

In fact, the US is far behind many of its international counterparts when it comes to recycling. Germany, South Korea, Wales, and Austria all recycle more than 50 percent of their waste, according to a recent report. In fact, all four countries recycle well more than 20 percent more per year than the US.

U.S. households have been steadily increasing their trash output—almost double per capita since 1960, according to the EPA. But if we consider the amount we now recycle, which was essentially zero in the 60s, U.S. residents toss in about three times what they did in 1960.

Over-the-top packaging, our culture of mass consumerism, and the idea that profit is more important than our earth continue to ensure that our landfills will fill. As previously mentioned, Germany is very successful in its recycling efforts, leading both the EU and the world. So much so that Germans recycle an estimated 70 percent of their municipal waste trash. So how does Germany manage to more than double our recycling efforts?

The secret to their success lies in a culture of environmental stewardship that has been slowly instilled through government mandates—enforced by fines—on both citizens and the manufacturers who produce the trash. Color-coded bins are placed everywhere, from parks and schools to public transit stops and residential collection sites:

  • Yellow for plastic
  • Blue for paper
  • Brown for organic matter
  • Green for colored glass

The emphasis on purposeful separation is underscored by a system of fines imposed on households who miss-sort their trash, the government often penalizing those who contaminate an entire batch of recycling. Green dots placed on the outside of product packaging indicate that it must be recycled, or face paying high fees.

Since our nonexistent recycling efforts in 1960, the U.S. population has almost doubled, and our GDP has gone from $542 billion in 1960 to nearly $21 trillion today. Economic expansion inevitably produces more—more construction, more people, and more goods consumed. Responsibly monitoring the environmental impact of expansion and diverting material from landfills is key as our economy continues to grow.

Fortunately, U.S. recycling efforts are increasing, and though the country’s overall effort could use improvement, many major U.S. cities are making huge strides, demonstrating that systemic innovation and a shifting consciousness are very, very possible.

Pushed by aggressive statewide policies, the two major population hubs in California, Los Angeles and San Francisco, are reaching nearly unprecedented waste recovery rates. Embracing bold change, all Californians must now bring reusable bags to collect their groceries or pay a fee per bag if they forget. The new policy is working towards eliminating single-use plastic bag litter on waterways, beaches, and roads. By 2017, one year after the ban on distributing single-use plastic bags, the bag litter was down 72 percent, according to Californians Against Waste, a non-profit research and advocacy organization dedicated to waste reduction and recycling programs.

Here are ten American cities which are making notable strides in recycling technology and public awareness in 2022.

San Jose: Strides in Residential and Commercial Recycling

San Jose, the third largest city in California, is situated just 50 miles from San Francisco. San Jose has been working toward a more circular system of waste management since 2008 when the city made a commitment to reduce waste diversion to 75 percent by 2013, become zero waste by 2022, and have zero landfill or incinerator waste diversion by 2040.

San Jose cited four major strategies, inspired by cities that are establishing best practices for waste management:

  1. Reuse and recycling of end-of-life products.
  2. Reduction of waste before disposal and promotion of less wasteful lifestyles.
  3. Encouraging upcycling for the purpose of workforce development.
  4. Expanding sustainable development and green infrastructure.

As San Jose has worked toward its ambitious zero waste goals, notable achievements include how the city processes commercial and residential waste.

Between 2012 and 2015, San Jose improved the city’s commercial recycling rate from 22 percent to 43 percent and diverted an additional 28 percent of waste to compost. Currently, San Jose diverts approximately 74 percent of its waste away from landfills.

The feat required creating an exclusive commercial waste management system through a collaborative initiative between the city and two waste management companies: Republic, and the Zero Waste Energy Development Company (ZWED). For more than 8000 businesses in San Jose, Republic collects and removes recyclables and organics, processes the recyclables, and sends the organic matter to ZWED for processing into energy or compost. The city is examining how to better prevent or recycle the 31 percent of commercial waste still going to landfills.

Since 1985, San Jose has provided curbside recycling and continues to improve it’s recycling strategies to ensure San Jose residents can meaningfully participate in the zero-waste goal. In 2003, the apartment recycling rates were only 11 percent. Through a pilot where ESD (one of San Jose’s waste collection companies) began pulling recycling and compostables from dumpsters.

By 2016, 68 percent of residential waste was recycled as a result of this strategy, and others like curbside pickup, street sweeping, Neighborhood Cleanup events, curbside junk pickup, and City Council Neighborhood Beautification days.

The January 2022 California statewide mandate on separating food scraps from the rest of waste has had no impact on San Jose, as they already have been sorting our organic materials at a recovery facility.

San Jose notes that there is still much work to be done in figuring out how to adapt to challenges in recycling brought forth by changes in global commodities markets, non-recyclable materials, operational changes, and non-compliance in recycling by construction entities.

San Diego: City Recycling and Demolition Debris Deposit Ordinances

According to San Diego California’s Zero Waste Plan, the city has improved it’s landfill diversion rate from 40 percent in 1995 to a solid 65 percent in all of the 2010s. It missed its goal of 75 percent diversion by 2020 but has reached a respectable 71 percent. Future goals include 90 percent by 2035 and zero by 2040.

Part of this 20 percent increase in diversion is rooted in San Diego’s City Recycling Ordinance (CRO)—a recycling mandate for residential, commercial, and special event waste. As a result of the implementation of the ordinance in 2007, access to recycling services increased by 90 percent between 2008 and 2012, enabling more multifamily and commercial properties to participate in recycling. In addition, San Diego lowered the threshold for exemption, which required more residential and commercial participation in recycling.

San Diego’s Construction and Demolition Debris Deposit Ordinance (C&D Ordinance) also contributes to the growth in diversion through a deposit-based system for building and demolition waste. Under the C&D Ordinance, builders are required to comply with at least a 50 percent diversion rate. Builders pay a refundable deposit when they apply for permits and their deposit can be refunded up to 100 percent depending on whether or not they properly divert waste. Under this ordinance, most large projects are achieving 100 percent diversion, with the average rate of C&D recycling sitting at 71 percent.

While these strategies have pushed San Diego to a respectable recycling rate, the city is currently figuring out how to continue to improve despite new regulations, changing recycling infrastructure, and the fluctuating recyclables market.

At the beginning of 2022, San Diego has found itself scrambling to implement the new California state law mandating that organic material be sorted out of the rest of the waste. However, implementing a solid composting and sorting plan should help the city bolster its solid waste diversion rates.

In the future, San Diego is going to explore a wide range of new strategies to boost recycling including building a resource recovery park, establishing diversion requirements in hauling agreements, reducing more exemptions to the CRO, phasing in additional materials for recycling, and educating the community on how to reuse discarded materials.

Boulder: Universal Zero Waste Ordinance

In 2005, only 17 percent of Boulder, Colorado’s MSW was being diverted from landfills, with only 10 percent being recycled. In 2006, Boulder resolved to become a zero-waste city, pledging to switch the trends in Boulder completely by reaching an 85 percent diversion rate by 2025.

As of 2022, Boulder is on its way to this goal. With a diversion rate of 53 percent, recycling rates and compost rates have tripled to 35 percent and 21 percent, respectively, and the city is starting to explore reuse strategies as well.

One replicable action that Boulder implemented to see this significant increase in diversion was the universal zero waste ordinance (UZWO). The UZWO makes it so that all city residents, employees, and visitors share some of the responsibility of ensuring proper waste management. Elements of the ordinance include provisions that:

  • All residences have hauling services
  • Businesses must participate in trash separation and report compliance
  • Special events must have recycling and composting
  • All recyclables must be brought to the county’s recycling center

Businesses can only seek exceptions after considering and exhausting all other options to bring the business in compliance with the UZWO.

Another way that Boulder has historically supported its recycling efforts is through taxes. In 2001, voters approved a short-term sales tax to build the Boulder County Recycling Center. The center is run under a creative social-enterprise contract, and in collaboration with Eco-Cycle, is able to handle household recyclables and hard to recycle materials as well.

In another example of using taxes toward the greater good, Boulder voters passed an occupational trash tax in 1994, which charges tax on residential and commercial waste. As haulers often pass this tax on to customers, there was a voter-approved maximum of $3.50 per month per household and $0.85 per month per cubic yard of trash for multi-family units—a threshold reached in 2009. Notably, the trash tax in boulder generates almost $1.8 million dollars per year and has been used to fund a range of initiatives:

  • The entire zero waste effort
  • Curbside compost collection
  • The transition to single-stream recycling
  • Part of a hazardous waste facility
  • Land for facilities to process hard to recycle materials

Alameda: Involving Public Entities

In 2010, Alameda, California made a pledge to reach 89 percent MSW diversion by 2020. Over nine years, Alameda was able to reduce solid waste sent to landfills by increasing its diversion rates from 73 percent to 79 percent. While their 89 percent diversion goal has been postponed beyond 2020 because of the complexity arising from such a high rate of diversion, the city has built this recycling and composting momentum with the people.

Involving public entities through programs and education is one way that Alameda has improved its diversion rates over the years. Through the provision of technical assistance, waste assessments, recycling and compost collection services, and battery collection, diversion rates across the city facilities rose from 40 percent in 2010 to 61 percent in 2016.

In addition to working with the people who keep Alamada running, increases in two-stream (recycling and organics) containers in public parks and business districts have contributed to greater recycling rates as well.

Another replicable effort that Alameda implemented to encourage better recycling among its young people was an outreach and education program called the “Alameda Green School Challenge.” Through a three-year grant, Alameda Unified School district was able to increase diversion from 26 percent to 41 percent. They achieved this increase by implementing new recycling and composting programs in all district facilities, and through a fun educational program for students. Through an interactive and fun waste sorting game, students were invited to contribute meaningfully to Alameda’s waste reduction goals by learning how best to sort their household and school-generated waste.

Los Angeles: The Solid Waste Management Act, CalRecycle, and Rethink LA

In the early 1960s, Los Angeles voted against recycling. Now in 2021, the city of almost four million people recycles 76.4 percent of its waste.

Over 35 years ago, the large-capacity Puente Hills Landfill began brimming with waste. Then-mayor Tom Bradley insisted on incinerators to solve the problem. Advocacy groups and citizens quickly opposed incineration due to its impact on air quality and health, and Bradley focused on recycling instead as the solution. The incineration debacle no doubt brought the problem of waste to the forefront of public attention.

Support from the state soon followed in the form of grants towards recycling infrastructure and education. Government mandates soon reacted to a dire situation as landfills nearly reached capacity. Consequently, California’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Act of 1990 imposed statewide goals of 25 percent recycling by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000.

The Act helped fund efforts to collect and facilitate recycling. Statewide management by CalRecycle also employed local enforcement agencies to move toward its new statewide goals in overall waste recovery—everything from tires and construction materials to trash.

Los Angeles phased in recycling by combining the efforts of private industry and city-owned collection services. The city handles curbside collection and hauls waste to private materials recovery facilities.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, by 2000, LA achieved an unprecedented 65.2 percent recovery rate, far exceeding its initial goals. The city’s new target—90 percent by 2025—is bolstered by a citizen participatory 20-year plan. “Rethink LA” initiatives help educate citizens on the importance of recycling and composting. The numerous sub-programs laid out to substantiate LA’s commitment to recycling include one program for restaurants to compost food waste and another that reduces company’s city tax obligations based on their recycling efforts.

Los Angeles’s recycling achievements and conscientious citizen participation is due in large part to community-wide education and campaigns. From bilingual recycling education to grassroots outreach in low income communities, LA has managed to stay on track toward a zero waste initiative. Unrealistic? Look how quickly the sprawling city re-vectored its wasteful course.

In addition to a cleaner LA, the city’s economy has gotten a boost from the business of recycling: “Nowhere has recycling made such a dramatic impact on the economy as in the City of Los Angeles,” notes Californians Against Waste, which claims that the recycling industry overall adds $1.2 billion annually to LA’s economy.

San Francisco: Zero Waste and Recology

Los Angeles’s success in waste reduction shows that progress is made when governments blend efforts with the private sector. Perhaps the best example of reaping the benefits of both private industry and publicly owned waste infrastructure is San Francisco.

Waste360 notes, “At its core, the San Francisco zero waste program is run like a social enterprise, meaning that its primary purpose for being is to fulfill a mission (i.e. zero waste) and that the program is expected to make a profit while doing so.”

San Francisco’s 80 percent waste diversion rate has succeeded through financial, taxpayer protection of private industry. The city’s waste removal company—Recology—has partnered with the government and enjoys governmental profit-protection. In other words, the government promised it would absorb much of the expense while Recology helped the city to get its zero waste policy underway.

In essence, San Francisco softened the blow for Recology and helped to bolster a kind of community enterprise. Recology rolled out a number of citywide educational programs while it hauled trash and recyclable material to a central processing center—all under a public guarantee of profits.

Seattle: Local Composting and Smaller Trash Cans

Seattle has pledged to reach a 72 percent recovery rate by 2025. In 2020, the city boasted that it recycles nearly 60 percent of its waste and as the city continues to grow, residents still manage to reduce their trash; each person only sends .81 pounds of trash to landfills per day, according to the EPA. In 2022, the goal is to reach a recycling rate of 80 percent.

In 2009, forward-thinking Seattle passed a law that made it mandatory for residents to recycle food scraps. Food waste was then mixed with yard waste, and composted in a nearby facility to be sold locally as gardening soil by Cedar Grove Composting.

Presently, Seattle’s trash must be transported by rail 257 miles to a landfill in Arlington, Oregon. The obvious transport costs increase the motivation for the city to find ways to reduce overall waste, particularly since the cost of collecting and processing recycling is almost half the cost of sending trash down to Oregon.

One key to Seattle’s success was its three-year phase-in program for mandatory recycling, which allowed time to educate residents and begin the process of enforcement through penalties. Notices were given to residents who did not comply and eventually fines, though the EPA claims that few fines were necessary.

Seattle’s trash utility is publicly owned and sends waste to two city-owned transfer centers to process recycling and trash where private companies are contracted to process the rubbish. They are handsomely compensated when they send less to landfills.

Residents are also motivated to waste less through lower collection rates. A quick look at the city’s fee schedule shows that the larger the trash can, the more the monthly rate. Interestingly, there is no option for the collection of a 50-gallon container, the typical size distributed in many U.S. cities by local trash service providers. It costs double the amount—a whopping $74.30—for Seattle residents to have a 64-gallon container of trash picked up as it does a 32-gallon container ($37.15 monthly).

The city’s utility website urges residents to reduce trash by recycling, particularly food waste and paper products, noting that food waste makes up 30 percent of most municipal waste, and paper, 20 percent. Seattle’s success proves that behavior does indeed change when financial incentives are involved.

The trend towards the privatization of landfills and trash collection has been growing steadily since the 1980s, and now roughly half of all U.S. trash collection utilities are privately owned.

One problem with privatization, according to Waste360, is that communities lose control over the landfill’s waste capacity as well as rates. Since the first privatization of landfills in the 80’s fees have risen a staggering 135 percent.

Portland: The Opportunity to Recycle Act and Youth Education

According to the most recent data available from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, despite the growth of construction brought on by economic expansion, Portland managed to recover 42 percent of its waste generated in 2019. This was a 1.2 percent increase over 2018.

The state of Oregon’s recently amended Opportunity to Recycle Act governs statewide recycling programs and sets a statewide goal that 55 percent of waste be recovered by 2025. The law regulates cities’ recycling and waste management and also requires more recovery from larger cities with more resources.

Many small rural Oregon cities canceled costly curbside pick-up services and moved to drop-off depot recycling programs where an attendant assists citizens in the proper placement of recyclables. The increased levels of contamination in the single-bin method of curbside pick-up combined with the difficult access to far-away Portland-based recycling processors made curbside service simply too costly for smaller cities with fewer resources.

Portland has set a lofty goal of a 90 percent waste recovery rate by 2030, according to the city’s Planning and Sustainability Department. To facilitate awareness, the local Portland Metro organization educates students of all ages, from puppet shows in elementary schools to multi-day presentations in high school classrooms. Secondary students discuss the negative impact of waste and its connection to climate change, challenging students to examine how they consume. Middle schoolers are challenged to track their own changes in behavior as they strive to conserve resources with an educational series on ecological footprints, food waste, and conscious consumption.

The Portland Metro’s sophisticated education program on recycling rightfully targets change at a generational level. The area says their goal is to encourage students “to be part of the ‘new story’ of climate change.” Quite an inspiring message for future stewards.

Much of a city’s decision to recycle, aside from being an environmental one, is an economic one. Until January 2018, many cities were selling their recyclable materials to China. Many small Oregon towns struggled with the recycling dilemma once China stopped accepting global recyclables.

In the wake of China’s ban, cities were forced to find new solutions for their recyclables or send those items to landfills. Some cities have sadly resorted to burning recyclable trash in pollutant-inducing incinerators. The city of Boise instead sought an innovative way to solve the economic problem of recycling.

Boise: Renewlogy and Hefty® EnergyBags

Boise residents were temporarily restricted on what plastics they could recycle while the city sought a solution to China’s recycling ban. The city soon partnered with Hefty® brand bags and Renewlogy, a company that converts plastics into diesel fuel. For the initial roll-out, twenty-six 13-gallon orange, Hefty® EnergyBags were sent to all Boise households, enough for one year of curbside recycling service.

Boise residents were quickly educated on the new orange bag program, designed to recycle light-weight plastics that are typically sent to landfills in most cities, such as plastic bags and food packaging, even candy wrappers. Residents put the orange-bagged items into their normal blue recycle bins for pickup. Nearby processing centers sent the separated orange-bagged materials to Salt Lake-based Renewlogy for diesel conversion. In just two months, Boise sent a whopping 54,000 tons of plastic to Salt Lake—quite a load for flimsy plastics.

According to the City of Boise’s Public Works, 98 percent of Boise residents participate in recycling, so it’s no wonder that the program was an instant success. Renewlogy claims that their fuels have a 75 percent lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels at approximately one-third of the cost. The company has collected one million tons in the past year from Boise and Omaha, combined—which equates to almost 170,000 barrels of fuel.

Phoenix: Recycling At Any Cost and Innovation

In 2020, the city of Phoenix was faced with the decision to either cut curbside recycling programs or increase rates. The city council voted 7-2 to phase in a $6.40 fare hike for residential waste collection in order to preserve this valuable service. The decision, while not an easy one, was one based on public feedback where more than 50 percent of residents expressed the willingness to pay more in order to continue to divert waste from landfills.

Along with many other cities in the country, Phoenix has made a commitment to become zero-waste. The target for this city is to reach this status by 2050 and they have many initiatives in place to help them reach that goal. The most innovative of which is the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN) business incubator. RISN is a partnership between Arizona State University and the City of Phoenix and is for new businesses that are in the early stages of waste-to-product innovation.

Through RISN, companies who are trying to turn waste into a viable business will receive mentoring, strategic advice, introductions to key stakeholders, access to experts, training in this niche industry, and waste from the city in order to achieve their goals. To date, 19 companies have participated, 68 new jobs have been created, 25 products have been launched, and over $4.1 million has been generated in revenue.

Becca Brewer, MEd
Becca Brewer, MEd

Becca Brewer is building a better future on a thriving earth by healing herself into wholeness, divesting from separation, and walking the path of the loving heart. Previously to her journey as an adventurer for a just, meaningful, and regenerative world, Becca was a formally trained sexuality educator with a master of education.

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