Recycling: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Meet the cities at the bottom of the residential recycling pile.

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THE FIRST RULE OF RECYCLING IN AMERICA: There are no rules. A 1976 federal law gives states and localities responsibility for how they handle their trash, including recycling. National standards could put an end to the “Can I recycle my yogurt lid?” conundrum once and for all, but there’s little political will for a major overhaul of the country’s 8,000-plus recycling programs. Which is why we’re stuck with a frustrating free-for-all in which one town’s recyclables are another’s junk, and the average city recycles only about a third of its trash.

Still, many municipalities lag far behind even that unimpressive standard due to a combination of official indifference, cheap landfill, and regional variations in the recyclables market. (What’s up with that?) Waste & Recycling News annually ranks the 30 biggest cities’ recycling rates. The data can be dodgy since they’re reported by the cities themselves—Detroit, the largest city without curbside recycling, nonetheless claims a 10.5% residential recycling rate. These five cities, which failed to see a benefit in juicing their stats, are officially last.

City % trash
Recycled
excuses

Houston

9.4%

Only 23% of households have curbside recycling, and 25,000 are stuck on a wait list for bins. Suburban sprawl makes pickup pricey. And plentiful landfill means it’s easy to mess with Texas.

Philadelphia

8.4%

90% of residents of one neighborhood participated in a pilot program that rewarded them for recycling more, but city officials chose not to try it citywide. Philly just introduced single-stream recycling—and pickups on the same day as trash.

San Antonio

4%

The city opened a bigger, better reprocessing facility just before the price of recyclables crashed. Combined with inexpensive deals with landfill operators, recycling doesn’t pay the bills.

Indianapolis

3.7%

Only 12% of residents have curbside pickup—it costs them $6 a month, but costs the city $34 per home. And Indiana just suspended its recycling grants and loans for cash-strapped cities like Indy.

Oklahoma City

3%

City dumps won’t be full for 20 years. Households pay to recycle, and it’s expensive if they do. A weekly $100 prize bumped citizen participation by a pathetic 0.17% last year.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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