Numbers released late last week by the U.S. EPA suggest the nation’s recovery of recyclables is at a standstill, with recycling and composting flat in 2013. Industry experts pointed to the shifting material mix as a primary factor in the stagnant U.S. recycling rate.

According to the EPA’s nearly 200-page report, the U.S. generated 254 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2013 and recovered 34.3 percent of it – 0.2 percentage points below 2012’s recovery rate of 34.5 percent and 5.8 percentage points higher than the 2000 rate of 28.5 percent.

While some material types experienced increased recovery in 2013, including scrap electronics, recovery rates for paper, plastics and food – segments that combine to account for roughly 54 percent of overall generation – were all within a percentage point of 2012 totals.

The 2013 paper recovery rate, by far the highest among major material categories, was 63.3 percent in 2013, while the plastics recovery rate (9.2 percent) and food recovery rate (5.0 percent) remained in the single-digits.

“Sooner or later, people have to ask themselves what is a realistic recovery rate [to achieve]?” Chaz Miller, director of policy and advocacy at the National Waste and Recycling Association, said in an interview. “I think it’s clearly more than 34 percent, but I think a lot of cities and states hurt themselves by setting unrealistic, unachievable goals.”

The material mix

One challenge noted by Miller and others in the industry is the so-called evolving ton, the phenomenon of increasingly lightweight, sometimes plastics-based packaging replacing heavier, more easily recyclable paper and glass packaging. In other words, a ton of recyclables today is harder to amass than it was a decade ago.

Keefe Harrison, the executive director of The Recycling Partnership, a group that helps support and assist municipal recycling programs nationwide, said single-stream programs have grown in the U.S. The programs have led to higher recovery rates on a community-by-community basis, but they have not been immune to today’s lighter ton.

“What I see when I look at the report is not an indicator of consumer apathy or even declining rates – I see a changing packaging scene,” Harrison said. “This speaks to me more about the evolving ton than the impact of single-stream to deliver more material.”

Plastics generation, accounting for 13 percent of the waste stream in 2013, has increased 27 percent since 2000 while paper generation has fallen by almost 22 percent. In that same time frame, glass volumes have decreased by about 10 percent.

Looking forward

Bill Moore, an expert on recovered paper markets and president of Moore & Associates, said it’s safe to predict annual paper generation to fall further in the next five to 10 years.

According to Moore, annual paper generation could soon reach a bottom of 60 million tons (in 2013, U.S. paper generation was 68.6 million tons). He predicted in the coming years the rate at which the material is recovered will be “flat at worst, but probably has a small growth potential left.”

One material that might need to pick up the recovery slack, experts say, is food scraps. Food waste increased by 2 percent in 2013 and now accounts for about 15 percent of the overall waste stream. The food recovery rate, meanwhile, is at 5 percent.

Nora Goldstein, the editor of organics-recovery publication BioCycle, says just 2 percent of U.S. households currently have curbside food scrap collection, but she noted efforts to donate unused food are gaining ground.

“The good news, despite these realities, is that generators of food waste continue to be interested in diversion of this stream from disposal,” Goldstein said. “And demand for quality compost is growing rapidly.”

On the plastics front, increasing the recovery rate has been a unique challenge, said Steve Alexander, the executive director of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers.

An American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division report, “Making Sense of the Mix: Analysis and Implications for the Changing Curbside Recycling Stream,” research done by Resource Recycling also found that more plastics in the curbside bin are helping create opportunities for plastics recyclers. Alexander says that the industry is responding.

“Growing the [recovery] rate as the denominator is growing is tough, but it’s also a nice problem to have because it means there is a sizeable opportunity in plastics recycling,” Alexander said.