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The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent Recycling Economic Information Report calls recycling “a critical part” of the US economy, responsible for 681,000 American jobs. The report estimates that recycling-related jobs provide $37.8 billion in annual employee wages and that the recycling industry contributes $5.5 billion in annual tax revenue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also tracks several different occupations in recycling, including drivers, sorters, mechanics, facility and route managers, and sales representatives.

How much does the US recycle?

Despite these economic contributions, a minority of the waste generated in the US ends up recycled — the Government Accountability Office estimates a recycling rate of less than 25%. According to the US Geological Survey, the nation recycled over 52.2 million metric tons of metal in 2021. The EPA last reported data on plastic recycling in 2018; Americans recycled about 2.8 million metric tons of plastic that year. Meanwhile, the total amount of trash generated by US households increased over the past two decades.

What is keeping the US from recycling more?

The EPA has developed a national strategy to reach the goal of a 50% recycling rate in the US by 2030, but cites several challenges affecting improvements to recycling systems. Economically, the agency notes that weaker domestic and international markets for recycled materials impact recycling rates. Other factors include:

  • Public confusion about what, where, and how to recycle various materials
  • A lack of improvements in recycling infrastructure
  • A need to incorporate recycled materials into packaging designs
  • More consistent measurement

In 2020, the Government Accountability Office also developed a series of recommendations for the EPA to mitigate some of these challenges.

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