Recycling has been a growing and dynamic movement in North America, for more than three decades. In our early curbside recycling programs, we required customers to sort their recyclables into separate bins. For example, many communities provided three bins: one for newspaper, a second for mixed paper, and a third for glass and metal containers. Since then we’ve been leaders in helping the recycling industry evolve into a more efficient and productive system.

For example, we learned quickly that more people recycle when it’s more convenient, so we replaced hand-carried bins with wheeled carts. As the recycling mindset grew more mainstream, we grew our vision to recycle more by transitioning to single stream recycling. And, we backed that vision with a $1 billion-plus investment in collection and processing infrastructure to support expected growth.

It worked. Today, our recycling tons have increased 88 percent since 2007. This growth, however, has created a more complex industry that brings new challenges and opportunities. To manage and seize both, Waste Management once again is looking forward and leading where change is needed.

A Global Marketplace

The explosive growth in recycling tons soon increased their trading in global commodity markets. Today, Waste Management exports a third of the paper we collect to four continents. While this global market has supported recycling growth, it also means that market conditions – both positive and negative – are a business reality that we must constantly manage. For the fourth consecutive year, commodity prices declined in 2015 driven by global market conditions that included:

  • The Chinese economy – which purchases 29 percent of the traditional material recovery facility (MRF) and paper we manage – has slowed from its GDP growth of 12 to 14 percent to 6 to 7 percent.
  • A strong U.S. dollar that has resulted in a depressed price for our commodities because feedstock can be bought from other countries for less.
  • A weak market for plastic, which is essentially a petroleum product, with pricing that has fallen with declining oil prices; as a result, plastics manufacturers can purchase virgin resin at bargain prices.

The persistent decline in commodity markets has resulted in the need to manage our business as efficiently as possible, largely by closing or selling 30 underperforming facilities. During 2015, we also continued to work closely with our customers and other partner organizations to improve the quality of recyclables collected at the curb to avoid costly interruptions to our system from unsuitable materials. Read more about those efforts on in our Consumer Education section.

2015 Recycling Performance

See full infographic

What We Recycled

Waste Management Recycling Mix 2015
Material: Tons

  • Paper 7,791,905
  • Plastics 408,489
  • Mixed Organics 2,468,740
  • Mixed Recyclables 774,390
  • Glass 703,495
  • E-Waste/Lamps 16,118
  • C&D/Wood 397,799
  • Fly Ash 1,062,203
  • Metals 428,576
  • Other 72,958

Why We Recycled

To Save
110.6 Million
Mature Trees

To Meet the Annual Municipal Waste Disposal Needs of 46.4 Million People

To Fulfill the Annual Power Needs of
1.79 Million Homes

To Supply Enough Fresh Water for
26.2 Million People for a Month

To Avoid 32.5 Million Metric Tons of GHG Emissions

Enough Timber Resources to Produce 940 Billion Sheets
of Copypaper

To Save 36.1 Million Cubic Yards of
Landfill Space

To Save Through Recycling the Virgin Materials Needed to Replace 10.2 Million Tons of Paper, Metal, Plastic and Glass

To Save 59.0 Billion Gallons of Water

By Conserving
18.7 Billion kWh
of Electricity

Where We Recycled

Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)

  • 43 Single Stream
  • 4 Dual Stream
  • 37 Paper Only or Other Commercial Materials
  • 8 Construction and Demolition Debris
  • 6 High Grade
  • 6 Other

A Changing Waste Stream

To understand how our business has changed over the past three decades, consider your own daily life: There’s a good chance that you read a physical newspaper less frequently, drink more water out of plastic bottles and receive more cardboard boxes from online purchases. Changes in what we buy and how we live impact what ends up in our recycling carts.

Newspapers were the foundation of recycling programs for many years, and our materials recovery facilities were built to process 80 percent paper and 20 percent containers. With a 50 percent reduction in newspaper readership over the past decade, our paper-to-container processing ratio has is now 60 and 40 percent, respectively, and is inconsistent with the design of our facilities. The lightweighting of containers also been a major change in waste streams, with today’s plastic bottles weighing 37 percent less than they did 15 years ago. This has a significant impact on our plastic processing volume, creating another business challenge.

Following the Path of Commodities

Waste Management exports a third of the paper, plastic, metal and glass we collect to commodities markets around the world.

Evolving Toward New Measures of Success

While global commodities markets may shift in our favor over time, it’s a safe bet that newspaper and lightweighting trends will not reverse. This is our new normal, and we’re intent upon finding ways to make it work for our business and our planet. One way is to work more closely with the companies that make the products and packaging that we recycle in order to learn more about consumer purchasing trends and how they affect our operations.

We’ve long known it’s better to prevent waste than to recycle it — a fact underscored by new data. Studies show that some types of new plastic packaging technology – even when not recyclable – use fewer natural resources and cause fewer life cycle GHG emissions than previous generations of packaging. This point was demonstrated by the U.S. EPA and the State of Oregon when they analyzed the GHG emissions associated with recyclable metal, rigid plastic and cardboard packaging with nonrecyclable, multilayered plastic pounds – those used for express mail, juice and even soup.

Fresh insights gained from these types of studies combined with the business challenges created by commodity markets and changing waste streams have prompted us to pause and reconsider what is the best measure of success in our business today. For years, metrics such as weight and volume have been common measures of success for our industry, while terms such as “zero waste” have often become aspirational goals for customers. How do changing economics affect traditional metrics? Do new packaging technologies skew weight and volume results? And, what is the ultimate environmental benefit of recycling? In answering these questions, our focus is evolving toward a new key metric for success – reduction of GHG emissions.

Coffee Packaging Energy Consumption (MJ/11.5 oz.) CO2 Equivalent Emissions (lbs./11.5 oz.) MSW Waste Generated
(lbs./100,000 oz.
of product)
Steel Can
4.21 0.33 1,305
Plastic Container
5.18 0.17 847
Flexible Pouch
1.14 0.04 176

Analyzing Environmental Benefits Across the Service Spectrum

In the past year, we’ve embarked upon a project to better understand the relationship between GHG emissions and economics across the spectrum of services in our industry – a relationship that our customers especially want to understand as they seek to maximize the environmental benefit of their investment in waste services. Our analysis began by creating a series of disposal scenarios, starting with sending all waste to landfill and then adding incremental diversion options all the way through gasification.

Using U.S. EPA 2013 Facts and Figures, we pulled out tons available for diversion for each scenario and then applied U.S. EPA’s WARM tool ( to create an estimate of the associated GHG emissions reduction. Then, we examined the cost associated with each scenario, based on our national cost averages for that scenario. The overlay of the two analyses reveals the relative cost of achieving the GHG emissions reductions associated with each scenario.

The key takeaway: 84 percent of GHG emissions reduction can be achieved with Best Practices landfill gas capture systems combined with diversion of just 32 percent of the total waste stream, or 85 percent of the traditional recyclables that communities generate, such as bottles, cans and paper. Additional reductions can be achieved in smaller increments, but at a much higher cost per unit of carbon reduced. The analysis also shows that the emissions from our collection trucks have a small negative impact as compared with the emissions reduction of recycling and methane capture activities.

Another step in our analysis examined the associated life cycle GHG emissions of various materials within the recycling stream. Assuming an 85 percent recycling rate, the greatest emissions reduction potential in order of recycling impact is as follows:

GHG Emissions Reduction and Cost of Service Across Service Spectrum

  • Paper, based on both the quantity of paper in the waste stream and the carbon emissions-reduction potential associated with harvesting fewer trees;
  • Metal, because recycling results in reduced energy consumptions during remanufacturing and reduced mining of the virgin materials required to produce them, even though metals are a small portion of the waste stream;
  • Plastic bottles offer a relatively small amount of emissions-reduction potential given the small weight of plastics in the waste stream, though recycling does avoid using raw materials and saves energy; and
  • Glass makes up more of the waste stream by weight, but there is a relatively small GHG emissions benefit associated with recycling versus using virgin raw materials – primarily sand.

We concluded our analysis by evaluating the cost to reduce a ton of GHG emissions. The following diagram demonstrates the relative environmental and economic benefits of recycling various materials, with paper, metal and plastics the most compelling for both. While the GHG reduction potential of food waste is meaningful, the economic case is harder to make.

Based on the information from this analysis and through the application of lifecycle thinking concepts, we are better positioned to help customers develop waste programs and solutions that focus on their ultimate goal of achieving maximum reductions in GHG emissions in the most cost-effective manner possible.