Recycling & Composting in the U.S.

Commercially Compostable Waste Streams

Recycling & Composting in the U.S.

In 2016, each U.S. resident created 4.4 pounds of waste per day and successfully recycled 1.5 pounds of it, which means that today, for every U.S. resident a minimum of 3 pounds of waste goes to landfill every single day.

A Brief History of U.S. Recycling

Classic three arrowed RECYCLING symbol.

(Article updated 5/2020 by Raegan Kelly) The global symbol for recycling — the three-arrowed triangle — was inspired by Earth Day 1970. USC student Gary Anderson won a contest with his simple visual that featured the three steps of the recycling process: collection, manufacturing, integration of recycled raw material.

The chasing arrow symbol took hold. The hope was that we as a nation would recycle 100% of recyclable materials and packaging, and then create new products and packaging from the recycled raw material. The concept went astray when companies started using an increasingly complex array of mixed plastics in their products and packaging. Each type of plastic needs a separate recycling stream, and soon sorting became impossible. In response, the U.S. outsourced the problem (and the opportunity!) to China. For decades, China bought U.S. waste and recyclables, and processed and sold what they could as recycled raw materials.

Unfortunately, because we weren’t forced to confront the complexity and scale of our own plastic waste, U.S. corporations failed to design packaging with end of life in mind. Today consumers find themselves overwhelmed with confusing piles of mixed material packaging waste, none clearly marked, all destined for landfill, or worse, the general environment.

For this very reason, in 2018 China stopped purchasing U.S. waste streams. “…National Sword was China’s ban on foreign recyclables. It banned four categories and 24 types on imports starting in 2018. And National Sword has steadily expanded, banning more recyclables since then, and it could potentially lead to the banning of all incoming recyclable materials by 2020.” 99% INVISIBLE.

In 2019, the recycling arm of U.S. waste management collapsed. Now in 2020, fifty years after the first Earth Day, many U.S. households are back to throwing all of their garbage into the same bin. In Los Angeles for example, Materials Resource Facilities shutdown countywide, making it impossible to even drop off clean glass and aluminum streams for recycling.

To understand more about why China stopped accepting our recycling exports, we recommend the film Plastic China by director Wang Jilang.

Designing for Upcycling

One thing made clear in Plastic China — and the now global coverage of plastic pollution overflow on land and in water — is that randomly printing a recycling symbol on our packaging is not sufficient to address packaging waste. This is partly due to a breakdown of the system at the design stage.

To make packaging and products that can be fully processed into new raw materials, strict rules must apply at the design and procurement stage. Truly recyclable and/or compostable materials must:

  1. Be manufactured from a single compound, or from materials with the same recycling quality and designation;
  2. Be clean: food and other contaminants make recycling impossible, chemical contaminants make composting impossible;
  3. Be pure: free of toxic inks, glues, coatings, and additives. 
A model of product lifecycles in the Circular Economy.

In the Circular Economy, Waste Equals Food

Upcycling is a cornerstone principle of the circular economy and requires participants to design next-life value into products at the conception stage. By designing products and packaging that can become of equal value after service, the circular economic model aims to render the concept of waste obsolete. This regenerative approach challenges the traditional linear model of production, which follows a “take, make, dispose” structure. Hence the term “upcycling.”

Transparency and certification are necessary components of this model. Certification verifies that materials and products will function as-needed in their current form, and then become useful in new ways. Certification labs provide marks and symbols that not only educate the consumer but make it possible for Material Recovery Facilities to process these products correctly. As with the recycling symbol designed by Gary Anderson fifty years ago, certification breeds simplicity, uniformity, and trust.

After reports that we are all eating “one credit card worth of plastic a DAY” came out, a 2020 Consumer Reports on how to “limit the risk”

An Aside: Plastic, “A Toxic Love Story”

Describing in detail the ways plastic is toxic would require many many more articles. Every day we find out more about the hormone disrupting chemicals like BPA and pthalates commonly found in our plastics, flame retardants, and of course microplastics showing up in our bodies and throughout our food supply. Yet, despite studies from 2008 demonstrating over-the-limit leaching of antimony, a known contaminant detrimental to human health, from #1 recyclable PET water bottles into the drinking water they held, plastic water bottles are STILL ubiquitous in 2020.

Plastic, A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkels

Traditional plastics are made from petroleum by-products, and for some reason have never been subject to rigourous testing for non-toxicity in our bodies and to our planet. Chemical recycling, touted as a final solution for the complexity of our plastics problem, has lately been shown to be a highly toxic and energy intensive process. Another bizarrely old-fashioned idea, BURN the plastic as “Waste-to-Energy”, leaving municipalities with air pollution and toxic ash to deal with.

Enter Compostable Packaging Materials

The idea behind compostable packaging is this: start with non-toxic, biologically based feedstocks, build functional polymers that will biodegrade back into air, water and soil after use. Period.

Compostable packaging presents one solution to a new approach to packaging. Like with recyclable packaging, compostable packaging must be designed from the get-go to have a valuable second life. A key distinction from recyclable plastic packaging, compostable packaging must also be non-toxic. At the molecular level, compostable materials must be biologically available and attractive to the millions of microorganisms that live in soil.

To prevent compostable packaging from breaking down too early, quality compostable packaging material is designed to remain stable and hold its form until coming into contact with the three triggers necessary to cause anything biological to break down into soil: microorganisms, heat, and moisture.

Third-Party Compostable Certification Process

TUV Austria Commercially Compostable Symbol,

Compostable packaging material must pass two and sometimes three certification tests performed at third party labs. In the testing environment, the compounds themselves are subjected to high heat, moisture and bacterial microorganisms for 90 days in a controlled environment. 90 days is the maximum length of time most commercial composters expect to completely process a load of compostable feedstock into soil.

After 90 days, the lab tests the resulting soil, water, and air for complete biodedgradation, and residual toxins. Once the compound is manufactured into material, the resulting films or rigid forms are submitted to a second certification process. Products that pass can then be printed or embossed with TUV or DIN Certco symbols. These symbols signify that the processed material is certified ASTM D6400 compliant (U.S. compliance regulations) and EN 13432 compliant (European regulations).

The U.S. based Biodegradable Products Institute Compostable Certification Symbol,

For U.S.-based companies that wish to, Biodegradable Products Institute offers a final level of certification that review the ingredients list and certifications of ALL components of a package or product: ink, glue, coating, adhesive, etc.

the Marin Carbon Project

What is Valuable About Compost?

Compost is organic material that, through a process of controlled decomposition, becomes nutrient-rich soil conditioner. When spread on fields, compost helps farmland retain moisture and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. The Marin Carbon Project shows marked longterm increases in carbon sequestration in soil from single 1/4″ applications of compost on ranch grazing lands.

Aerobic composting-materials laid out in “windrows”

Commercial composting facilities accept yard trimmings, food waste, and pre-authorized certified compostable packaging waste. The waste is ground into evenly sized pieces, sorted for contaminants (plastic, glass, metal) and then mixed to achieve a balance of “green” (grass, food, manure) and “brown” (dry leaves, branches, compostable packaging) organic matter, the green providing nitrogen and the brown providing necessary carbon. The mix is carefully hydrated and, if properly prepared, microbial activity will heat the pile to optimal temperatures within several days. The pile is turned to allow air circulation and cooling, so that the organisms busy eating and breaking down the compost pile can break and don’t overheat. Water runoff is captured and re-used to hydrate the next batch. In 60-90 days, the resulting pile can be moved, sifted, and bagged or sold directly to farms, contractors, and individuals as critical soil amendment.

On farms especially, indoor anaerobic composting facilities use organisms designed to operate in low-oxygen environments to break down food, yard trimmings, animal waste, and compostable materials. These facilities sell not only the resulting composted soil, but also trap the resulting biomethane gas to provide natural gas to municipalities.

Commercial vs Home Composting

Industrial and household composting processes are the same; however, it is much harder for a home compost pile to achieve the temperatures required to break down biological materials in three months or less. If you have ever tried to compost an avocado peel, you know what I mean. Compostable packaging, meat bones, avocado, and banana peels all require high temperatures to break down quickly. For this reason, only some compostable packaging is certified home compostable.

LA Compost collects and processes compostable waste from subscribers across the city as part of a community effort to bring composting to the city.

Composting is in Your Future

According to the EPA, food composting rose from 1.84 million tons in 2013 to 2.1 million tons in 2015. A 2017 study conducted by BioCycle Magazine determined that there were 4,713 compost facilities in the United States. Ohio led with 419, followed by New York with 347. Compost pickups have been introduced in New York City and are legislated to be available across California by 2020 (due to COVID19, progress on this front has been delayed indefinitely however, local subscription based services are stepping in, see LA Compost above). San Francisco, Portland, and many states along the East Coast have achieved across the board compliance. Composting is coming your way.


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