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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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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