The U.S. recycling and composting rate took a significant dive in 2018, falling from 35% to 32%, according to new figures from the federal government. The drop was partially due to a change in how the rate was calculated.
The U.S. EPA recently published national waste and recycling data for the 2018 calendar year. The agency found the U.S. generated 292 million short tons of waste, of which 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted.
Together, those materials recovery efforts notched a 32.1% recycling and composting rate, down substantially from 35.2% in 2017. Without including composting, the recycling rate was 23.6%, down from 24.9%.
A major increase in waste generation outpaced modest recycling progress, leading to the decline. However, part of the decline is due to how EPA measured food waste generation, a category that increased by more than 22 million tons alone. The EPA noted that for the 2018 report, it considered a wider scope of food waste activities “to include additional generators and management pathways.”
The report includes a new category of alternative food waste management pathways, adding 17.7 million tons to generation. Food diverted in that category made up 6.1% of overall generation.
MSW generation hit 292.4 million tons in 2018. That was up nearly 24 million tons from the year before. By contrast, the 2017 generation figure was up just 6.6 million tons from the prior year.
Meanwhile, the amount of material recycled in 2018 increased by just 2 million tons.
“Although more tons were recycled in 2018 than ever before, the recycling rate decreased to the lowest levels since 2006,” EPA reported.
The recycling rate decline came amid a period of upheaval in global recycling markets. China in 2018 began tightly restricting imports of recyclables as part of its National Sword campaign, impacting pricing and recovery rates.
According to the EPA, the overall rate was also affected by a decrease in composting, which dropped from 27.0 million tons in 2017 to 24.9 million tons in 2018.
By material, the paper recycling rate increased notably, as did aluminum recovery. Plastics and glass recycling, however, stayed flat.
More stories about data
- British Columbia EPR program hits 85% recovery rate
- SWANA reports drop in waste and recycling industry deaths
- Data Corner: Quantifying environmental impacts of virgin and recycled resin