Twenty years ago, many solid waste planners thought no more than 15% to 20% of the municipal waste stream could be recycled. ILSR’s 1988 publication, Beyond 25%: Materials Recovery Age Comes of Age, shattered this myth. It featured 15 communities recycling 25% or more of their residential and commercial/institutional discards. Our 1991 report Beyond 40%: Record-Setting Recycling and Composting Programs highlighted even more communities with even higher recycling levels. Between 1996 and 2000, our U.S. EPA-sponsored Waste Reduction Record-Setters project greatly expanded our work to identify and share the experience of model recycling programs. This project produced a report and a series of fact sheet packets on record-setting recycling programs. ILSR continues to document best practices. In 2000 we developed a series of case studies for the California Integrated Waste Management Board. In 2002, we released a booklet on Alameda County, California’s comprehensive waste reduction and recycling programs.
Recycling has indeed come of age. The number of curbside recycling programs has climbed to more than 9,700, and the national recycling rate for municipal discards has reached 30% for the first time since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency started tracking the rate.
At the local level, many communities are setting new records, surpassing 50%, and even 60% waste diversion levels. A number of individual establishments – public and private sector – such as office buildings, schools, hospitals, restaurants, and supermarkets have approached 90% and higher levels. Recycling has made gains despite an unlevel playing field: competition from raw materials processing and wasting industries and expectations that it has to “pay for itself.”
A few communities have endorsed zero waste goals. Del Norte, California, is the first U.S. community to adopt a zero waste management plan. Other communities are moving in this direction as well. Seattle’s current solid waste plan has adopted zero waste as a guiding principle. In 2002, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors adopted a 75% landfill diversion goal by the year 2010 and a long-term goal of zero waste.
ILSR provides technical assistance to communities interested in reducing the flow of materials to landfills and incinerators. This Recycling Record Setters Web page features innovative and model programs that can be replicated in other communities.