While recycling in the US continues to grow, one only has to look at Europe to appreciate how much further this country needs to go. The breadth of materials that are collected and recycled in Europe, particularly in northern European countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, significantly exceed what is collected in the US. The collection rates on these materials seem unfathomably high to waste experts in the US. Much of this can be attributed to the general European philosophies and sensibilities towards waste; the small, densely populated countries in much of Europe discourage landfilling, which forces jurisdictions to consider recycling as the first course of action. However, at least some of the differences can be found in a very important attribute: the accessibility of recycling services.
In much of the US, the public must transport waste to a central location, such as a municipal hazardous waste site, to ensure that material is recycled. Other segments of the population collect recyclables at curbside, but this practice is often limited to a handful of standard products, like certain plastics, aluminum cans, newspaper and cardboard.
While there is no universal standard for measuring the impact of accessibility on recycling success, the limited availability of collection sites for most materials certainly deters consumers from embracing recycling practices.
Generally speaking, what constitutes “accessible” collection sites? Several factors should be considered, such as whether a site is open to the public, whether the hours of operation are robust and flexible, and the proximity of sites to the waste generators, namely, the consuming public. Several industries and organizations have attempted to quantify this measure.
According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, 8,659 curbside recyclable collection programs were available in 2008, serving 146 million households, or 50% of the US population. While data regarding drop-off centers—vital to rural communities—is not as recent, in 1997 there were 12,964 operating in the country.
A 2009 recycling survey, prepared independently by R.W. Beck for the American Beverage Association (ABA) measured the impact of accessibility on recycling plastic and glass containers as a way to evaluate materials and collection techniques. The report revealed 74% of the total population, or an estimated 229 million Americans, have access to some form of curbside recycling at home.
A 2012 study conducted by Moore Recycling Associates on behalf of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), looked at the percentage of US population with access to plastic bag recycling and plastic film recycling. Their results show that 91% to 93% of the US population has access to plastic bag recycling and 72% to 74% also have access to plastic film recycling via curbside collection or because they live within 10 miles of a drop-off facility.