Where does our trash go after we empty it into a garbage truck? Some recycling facts (as we will see below) reveal that the bulk of our waste ends up in incinerators and water bodies such as rivers and oceans. The rest will likely end up buried hundreds of feet under the ground. We're recycling, but what does that really mean?
The facts about the recycling process below give us some insight into the growth of the industry, global stats, and everything we need to know about recycling on micro and macro levels.
Related: See what people have to say about recycling in our selection of recycling quotes.
#1- Globally, only an average of 19 percent of waste undergoes materials recovery through recycling and composting
Most of our solid waste still finds its way to landfills and our water bodies. Although different regions of the world record varying success figures, the average global recycling rate is at a low of 19%.
Recycling helps prevent the manufacture of goods from virgin materials, which further results in less carbon dioxide emissions and the protection of finite resources.
#2- Dry recyclables (plastic, paper and cardboard, metal, and glass) amount to 38 percent of global waste1
#3- More than one-third of waste in high-income countries is recovered through recycling and composting1
High-income countries record better success with recycling than others. One primary reason for this difference is the ability to create recycling systems that work. These include domestic infrastructures and trade agreements with other countries willing to accept their trash for recycling.
Many high-income countries recognized the need for recycling earlier than others. As income, and subsequently, consumption, grew, waste generation peaked quickly for them. We can see examples of this in archives of PSAs concerning environmental care from as early as the 1950s.
For example, Keep America Beautiful was a non-profit organization active in the 1950s to warn American consumers of the dangers of littering with their newly popular plastic bottles and packaging. As other lower-income countries entered their industrialization and commercialization phases a lot later, they have a lot of catching up to manage their growing waste production.
#4- As countries rise in income level, the quantity of recyclables in the waste stream increases, with paper increasing most significantly1
#5- More than 55 percent of waste in North America is composed of recyclables, including paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and glass1
#6- By substituting recovered scrap materials, recycling reduces the pressure to expand forestry and mining production.
Every year, the global demand for raw materials continues to grow. To meet this need, we can either choose to keep taking from nature until we completely degrade and exhaust our resources, or we can recycle what we already have. Unfortunately, there's still a strong throw-away culture, which means getting these items to the point of recycling will continue to prove difficult.
#7- From an economic perspective, recycling and repurposing can yield a higher profit for new product development1.
Several facts on recycling (as we will continue to see) show that recycling does not just offer environmental benefits. Emerging studies show that recycling brings less financial and environmental costs and yields higher economic returns for manufacturers. Manufacturers and raw material suppliers who can develop adequate recycling systems and facilities are in the right place to make a good profit from the municipal solid waste generated from our consumerism.
#8- Recyclables make up a substantial fraction of waste streams, ranging from 16 percent to about 50 percent in high-income countries1
#9- In the US, the lead-acid battery recycling rate was at 99% by 2017EPA
Lead-acid batteries are the most recycled products in the US. Recyclers can use all the components of these batteries- plastic, acid, and lead- to make new, fully-functional batteries. Every year, this particular consumer product continues to retain its position as the most recycled product. The systems in place mean that even when Americans throw away lead batteries, the right people can recover and recycle them.
#10- The US produces 12 percent of global municipal solid waste despite representing 4 percent of the world's population.ref
#11- The US produces 234lb (106.2kg) of plastic waste per person per yearref
Americans throw away a significant amount of solid plastic waste. Unfortunately, plastic poses a serious threat to human health at every stage of its life cycle. This makes the grim statistics about how much Americans throw away quite discouraging, whether during refining and production, consumer production and packaging, or plastic waste management.
#12- The US recovered around 39.1 percent of beer and soft drink bottles for recycling in 2017
#13- China used to be the destination for more than half the world's recyclable scrap paper and plasticref
Since axing all operations on waste paper exported to China in 2019, the Chinese government believed this step back would reduce the tons of waste in recyclers and boost public health in the country. This means that the EU and the US will need to find new homes for their million tons of waste every year. China's regional neighbor, India, chose to offer their land for economic benefits.
#14- Recycling nations now send a significant portion of the world's waste paper to India for processingref
Recyclable trash is harmful to the environment. Unfortunately, China is stuck with tons of cleanup before it can restore its environment to its pre-waste import state. Pulling the plug on municipal solid waste shipped into the country was the silver bullet to the waste crisis after 25 years of being the dumpsite for over half of the world's scrap and crap.
#15- The Indian recycling industry needs nearly 14 million tonnes of waste paper to meet its current demandref
#16- In 2016, the world generated 242 million tonnes of plastic waste—12 percent of all municipal solid waste1
Recycling facts on plastics show that we're using up more plastics than we can manage globally. And of these 242 million tons of discarded plastic bags, packaging, and other goods, only a fraction will be recyclable.
Plastics offer such short lifetime value that the excesses we're creating are quickly causing environmental issues. These million tons of plastics are finding their way to our ocean bodies, where they are poisoning and choking marine life.
Recycling plastics ultimately helps protect finite fossil fuel resources and supports leaving them in the ground to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Recycling a ton of plastic bottles saves the equivalent amount of energy an average two-person household uses in a year and results in fewer greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
Further, as a great deal of plastic waste ends up incinerated, recycling plastic saves twice as much energy compared to incineration.
#17- In North America, more than 12 percent of dry recyclable waste is plastics1
#18- In 2016, the world's 242 million tonnes of plastic waste primarily originated from three regions; 57 million tonnes from East Asia and the Pacific, 45 million tonnes from Europe and Central Asia, and 35 million tonnes from North America.1
#19- In 2017, Europe exported one-sixth of its plastic waste, mainly to Asia1
One of the many reasons high-income regions manage plastic waste better is that they ship them off to other regions. Before China placed a ban on importing waste streams from other countries, the EU and the US sent 95% and 70%, respectively, of their respectively to China. Recycling one too many countries' trash was beginning to take a toll on the country. Land and air pollution were some of the issues that they could no longer ignore.
Although China's ban may start to make a difference for the country, we can still find the effects of imported trash in Southeast Asia, where countries accept waste for recycling.
#20- In the US, the plastic recycling rate was at 8 percent by 2017EPA
#21- Recycling one ton of paper saves the equivalent of 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water
Paper production requires energy, trees, and already scarce freshwater. Although the world is quickly going digital, there's still a massive paper demand for printing and shipping. Recycling cardboard and paper is one of the few realistic ways the paper industry can keep up with this demand. When we send our paper for recycling, what we're doing saves enough energy to make a difference.
#22- Paper and cardboard comprise 28 percent of total waste in North America.
Unfortunately, North Americans throw away paper at a significant level. Although we can classify paper waste as non-hazardous, it still poses a substantial risk to the environment, specifically in terms of the consumption of natural resources to meet our needs. If we continue to lose trees to paper production, air pollution could become a global priority crisis.
Related: Check out our guides on how to reduce packaging waste, eco-friendly paper, and applications of reused and recycled paper or sustainable alternatives such as eco-friendly toilet paper, journals, packaging, and business cards.
#23- The share of recovered fibers used in paper production increased by about ten percentage points during 2000‑10 to reach just over 50% of production5, and since then has remained relatively flat, with a small decline in 2018
This recycling fact shows that the rate of recovered paper was growing, flatlined, and then began to decrease. One plausible reason for this is the world's reducing demand for printing paper. Merely two decades ago, news stories, correspondence, business information, and more were only printed on paper.
Today, the world saves energy and resources by using digital 'print.' With a better focus on recycling practices we may be able to meet the world's paper demand every year without cutting down more trees.
#24- As countries rise in income level, the quantity of recyclables in the waste stream increases, with paper increasing most significantly 1
Although we need less paper for printing, we need more paper for other things such as packaging and shipping. The average person in high-income countries, including Americans, throws away enough boxes and packing paper per year to raise concern. All those corrugated boxes and paper grocery bags add up. We should place a global emphasis on ensuring that these paper products end up in the correct waste streams for recycling.
#25- In the US, the paper recycling rate was at 66 percent by 2017EPA
#26- Glass can be revived and recycled completely4, and it hardly decomposes
Before the introduction of plastics for beverage packaging, people used, reused, and recycled glass bottles and jars endlessly. Most regions of the world had an adequate waste stream that allowed consumers to return their glass packaging easily.
For example, people left milk jars outside for the 'milkman' to collect and return soda bottles to the stores where they purchased them. The facts below show the consequences of switching away from the use of a reusable glass bottle for our milk and drinks to our current disposable culture.
#27- EPA reports from 2017 show that glass waste alone in landfills neared 7 million tonsEPA
#28- In the US, glass generated in products for 2017 was 11.4 million tons, but only 3 million tons (26.6 percent) were recycledEPA
#29- In the US, the glass recycling rate was at 27 percent by 2017EPA
The US is struggling to meet glass recycling demands despite glass being 100 percent recyclable. Despite the (unfavorably) high rate of plastic use, the US still uses volumes of glass packaging, such as glass bottles and jars. Unfortunately, we can still find the throw-away culture associated with plastic bottles applied to glass. Note that facts on recycling glass include the widely used glass bottles and jars for beverages.
#30- Because of the rising demand for recycled metals, the metal recycling industry is expected to reach 86.11 billion dollars of trade by 2027ref
The demand for recycled metals is climbing. By 2027, it will be near the 86 billion dollar mark predicted by Reports and Data. The good news is that this will reduce the world's reliance on natural resources, which desperately need saving. Rare earth metals could disappear, but metal recycling can prevent that. With improved government regulations on metal recycling, we might just be able to save our metals.
#31- In 2018, the recycling rate for ferrous scraps in cars was 106 percent, for appliances; 90 percent, and for reinforcement steel; 70 percentref
#32- Studies continue to show that aluminum can be infinitely recyclable and reusable without losing its material properties2
#33- Every year, the aluminum industry pays over 800 million dollars to recover empty aluminum cansref
#34- Between 2014 and 2018, the global volume of recycled aluminum showed a steady climb from 15.5 million to 19.3 million metric tonsref
#35- Asia accounts for over 50 percent of the worldwide production of recycled aluminiumref
#36- The amount of aluminum recycled domestically in the US is in decline. From 56.1 percent in 2014 to 49.8 percent in 2018ref
#37- Production of aluminum from recycled materials requires only 5 percent as much energy as primary productionref
Recycled aluminum cans and other goods still retain the properties of the parent metals. Unlike plastic recycling which has little financial power, aluminum is the most recycled product globally, with a payout of over 800 million dollars for empty cans. As the above facts on recycling show, scrap recycling industries also save energy, and can aluminum can be recycled endlessly.
#38- For each aluminum can that is recycled, there is enough energy saved to run a television or computer for three hours
#39- For each pound of aluminum recovered, Americans save enough energy resources to generate about 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity
#40- In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste, and only 17.4% of this was officially documented as properly collected and recycled3
Electronic devices are in high demand globally. And as innovation, model upgrades, and new designs happen, people worldwide are also quick to discard these devices.
Unfortunately, many people do not know which waste streams their electronic devices need to go into. In some cases, local communities and governments make no provisions for collecting and storing electronics for recycling correctly.
As a result, in 2019, the world collectively recycled only 17.4% of its e-waste. Everything else went to landfills, garbage heaps, and water bodies.
#41- In 2019, the continent with the highest collection and recycling rate of e-waste was Europe with 42.5%, Asia ranked second at 11.7%, the Americas and Oceania were similar at 9.4% and 8.8%, respectively, and Africa had the lowest rate at 0.9%
#42- When the correct methods are employed to separate and recycle e-waste, the material losses are less than 5%4
#43- Even in an ideal scenario in which we recycle all the iron, copper, and aluminum resulting from e-waste (25 Mt), the world would still require approximately 14 Mt of iron, aluminum, and copper from primary resources to manufacture new electronics 4
#44- The Chinese Government has set targets of sourcing 20% of raw materials for new electronics products from recycled content and recycling 50% of electronic waste by 2025 4
#45- Taiwan's (Province of China) e-waste collection and recycling rate had reached 64% of the products covered by the legislation in 2018 4
#46- Statistics show that 59% of the e-waste generated in Northern Europe and 54% of e-waste generated in Western Europe is documented as being formally recycled 4
|Cheung, Wai & Pachisia, Vedant. (2015). Facilitating Waste Paper Recycling and Repurposing via Cost Modelling of Machine Failure, Labour Availability and Waste Quantity. Resources Conservation and Recycling. 101. 34-41. 10.1016/j.resconrec.2015.05.011.|
|Bulei, C & Todor, MP & Heput, T & Kiss, Imre. (2018). Recovering Aluminium for Recycling in Reusable Backyard Foundry that Melts Aluminium Cans. IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering. 416. 012099. 10.1088/1757-899X/416/1/012099.|
|Forti V., Baldé C.P., Kuehr R., Bel G. The Global E-waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows and the circular economy potential. United Nations University (UNU)/United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) – co-hosted SCYCLE Programme, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) & International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), Bonn/Geneva/Rotterdam.|
|Gencer, Yasin. (2015). Mystery of Recycling: Glass and Aluminum Examples. 10.4018/978-1-4666-9723-2.ch009.|
|iea Tracking Report 2020: Pulp and Paper|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.