Recycling: Curb Your Enthusiasm

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


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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