cityscape recycling / DRogatnev, ShutterstockThe Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling started as a report to examine recycling acceptance rates for certain types of packaging. That narrow focus morphed into a comprehensive study regarding the larger issue of recycling accessibility in America.

The report, conducted by The Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), includes data from 2,000 communities, both big and small, urban and rural.

According to the findings, 94 percent of U.S. residents have access to some sort of recycling program. For 73 percent of people, that is a curbside recycling service that may include drop-off as well.

That 73 percent curbside number can be broken down further. The study found 53 percent of U.S. residents are are enrolled in curbside automatically. Another 6 percent of residents have to opt in to receive curbside service, and 14 percent of the nation’s curbside programs are subscription based.

The report defines opt-in service as a scenario in which a household has one possible service provider and must contact that entity to become enrolled. Subscription systems, on the other hand, offer households a number of service providers and residents secure their own contractor.

The study found opt-in models aren’t fully utilized. According to Adam Gendell, associate director of SPC, the group’s research determined that when residents have to voluntarily elect to receive their curbside recycling receptacle, only about one in three will do so.

Gendell offered expanded thoughts on the findings in a Q&A with Resource Recycling, a sister publication to Plastics Recycling Update.

And about the segment of the population that does not have curbside access? For 21 percent of Americans, drop-off is the only recycling option (that number is based on SPC’s definition of drop-off availability). Multi-family units represent almost half of the households in the drop-off-only category.

Finally, 6 percent of the population has no recycling service at all.

Access to plastics recycling

The study also looked into acceptance of recyclable materials and the availability of programs for those materials. This information helps SPC form guidelines for its How2Recycle label, and it also helps packaging companies follow Federal Trade Commission Green Guides for marketing a product as recyclable (a product can only be labeled “recyclable” if its materials can be collected for recycling in at least 60 percent of the communities in which the item is sold).

The report looked at nearly 50 products and 20 of them could be recycled in at least 60 percent of American communities.

Plastics fared well on the list. Out of the 33 different plastic materials tracked for the study, 15 of them can be recycled in at least 60 percent of communities. That list of 15 included items like PET bottles, cups, trays and clamshells.

HDPE, PE, LDPE, LLDPE and PVC bottles and jugs can also be recycled in the majority of areas, the study determined.

Middle of the pack products, with a recycling availability rate between 20 and 60 percent, include PP, LDPE and LLDPE lids, PVC clamshells, PS cups and other PS containers.

A handful of plastic products – including foam PS cups, trays and clamshells, as well as HDPE tubes – can be diverted for recycling in less than 20 percent of communities.

Looking geographically, the report found the Northeast region of the country has the highest access rate to recycling, with 96 percent of the population having a program available. A curbside program is available to 84 percent of those residents. The South and the Midwest follow closely behind with the West having the worst access rate at 89 percent.

Finally, the study highlighted several barriers to recycling access and participation, mainly inconvenience, cost and the quality of outreach materials.

The stakeholders involved in the SPC research noted they hope the initiative can open a larger dialogue surrounding recycling access and show that further research is needed in the area.