Recycling: Curb Your Enthusiasm

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

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


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.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate