Recycling in the U.S. is broken, but fixable.

Recycling in the United States started by generally accepting paper, glass, and aluminum. The rise of convenient, one-time-use packaging gave way to a new material for the recycling stream – plastic.

Plastic use is on the rise

In the 1960s, U.S. generation of plastics was  390,000 U.S. tons according to the U.S. EPA. In 2018, plastics generation in the U.S. was 35.7 million tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables and Figures, 2020). Plastics play a large role because materials such as paper glass and aluminum can be recycled into the same product again whereas plastics are often downcycled. That is, made into carpet or installation, not a bottle again.

Not all plastic is equal

We use a lot of plastic in the U.S. and thanks to the chasing arrow symbol a lot of plastic is thrown in the blue bin by consumers, assuming it all gets recycled. As a result, plastic is the most complicated material to recycle. Plastic with numbers 1 and 2 are generally widely accepted through curbside recycling programs in the U.S. Plastic with the number 1 – Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is often used for water bottles, peanut butter containers, and other similar food and drink packaging. Plastic with the number 2 – High density polyethylene (HDPE), is often used for milk jugs, shampoo bottles, etc. Plastic with numbers 3-7 do not have strong end markets in the United States.  In the United States guidelines around recycling are confusing. The chasing arrow symbol and word ‘recyclable’ are slapped on packages and consumers don’t know the difference. They toss it in the blue recycling bin and it becomes someone else’s problem. The U.S. used to offload plastic to China until China implemented the National Sword Policy which significantly changed the flow of plastics around the world. Other Southeast Asia countries followed China’s lead and now the U.S. is left with its own plastic waste. 

What can brands do about this?

Design for current infrastructure

Design for end of life in mind. Stick to materials, colors, package types, etc. that are widely accepted. The infrastructure capabilities and strength of end markets are always changing so check resources such as the ASTRX report by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and The Recycling Partnership and The Association of Plastics Recyclers Design ® Guide. For a more detailed look at designing for current infrastructure check out our other blogs on end-of-life: Recyclable versus Recycling.

Educate consumers

As a brand, you know your packaging best. You know what materials are used and where the package is going. You communicate with your consumers everyday via your website, social media, billboards, the list goes on…not to mention the packaging itself. Take the opportunity to educate your consumers. If the material you use is not widely accepted in recycling facilities, don’t label it recyclable. Or use terminology such as ‘not yet recyclable’ or ‘not widely accepted’ or ‘check locally’. Organizations such as How2Recycle can help brands communicate this with consumers. Brands have successfully run campaigns via social media platforms encouraging and educating their consumers to properly dispose of their packaging. An example is Dell who helps their consumers dispose of old computers, gaming consoles, and ink cartridges on their website.

Encourage federal standardization of rules

A federal standardization of rules could guide producers like yourself in creating packaging that is more likely to get recycled. A standardization in the U.S. could also reduce confusion at the consumer level of what can and cannot be recycled.

Invest in recycling infrastructure

Invest in recycling infrastructure at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) as well as automate curbside recycling. If consumers don’t have access to recycling, then the investment into recyclable materials, infrastructure at MRFs, etc. does not matter.  Start designing with end of life in mind. You can easily do this using EcoImpact-COMPASS where the software displays real-world pre-populated end-of-life data for your design team. Next, educate your consumers. Show them via social media campaigns how to properly dispose of your packaging. Dedicate a page of your website with helpful links to guide consumers on recycling your package, if possible. Finally, encourage federal standardization of rules and invest in recycling infrastructure. Recycling in the United States is broken but it is fixable and brands play a role.


2020. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Tables and Figures. Assessing Trends in Materials Generation and Management in the United States. [online] United States Environmental Protection Agency, p.8. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 May 2021]. Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.

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