1987, the infamous Mobro garbage barge wandered for 4 months down and up the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts in search of a suitable dumpsite. The media frenzy that ensued helped propel recycling into the public consciousness and jumpstart curbside recycling programs across the nation.
For a few years, this jolt pushed recycling rates upward, and everyone thought the climb was bound to continue.
Then in the mid-1990s, beverage container recycling rates began to drop, even as thousands of new curbside programs were being implemented. After reaching a pinnacle of 31% in 1995, the glass recycling rate began to slip; today it stands at about 22%. Aluminum can recycling fell from a high of 65% in 1992 to 45% in 2004. And PET recycling–once deemed technologically impossible–beat the odds and achieved 37% recycling in 1995, but from then on it declined steadily to 20% in 2003, and 21.6% in 2004.
Taken together, CRI estimates that the overall U.S. beverage container recycling rate has fallen from a from a high of 54% in 1992 to about 34% today: a drop of twenty percentage points. On a per capita basis, recycling has fallen as well. But national averages don’t tell the whole story. There are tremendous variations depending on program type, such as deposit/return, curbside, dropoff, and others.
Since 1991, CRI has strived to draw attention to stagnant or falling U.S. recycling rates for aluminum, glass and plastic, and to promote policies that make beverage producers responsible for their packaging waste. Despite our efforts, and those of recycling activists, policymakers, and businesses around the country, our nation is losing rather than gaining ground.