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.