Recycling in the U.S. – what works and what doesn’t

In the U.S, there’s a dangerous misconception about recycling. Namely, that it’s “broken”. It’s an attitude that can lead people to think “if the system doesn’t work, why should I even bother recycling?” Although our recycling infrastructure isn’t broken, there is certainly room for improvement. That’s why we work with Closed Loop Partners, an investment firm that finances recycling and circular economy upgrades across North America.

To help us understand how recycling is working in the U.S. and how we can make it better, we asked Closed Loop Partners to share some insights.

The state of recycling in the states

Guest article by Bridget Croke at Closed Loop Partners

Although no one sets out to waste resources, too often they end up in landfills or littering our natural environment. Products can and should have more than one life and recycling is a key tool in helping us achieve this.

But the recycling system as it stands is pretty inefficient compared to traditional manufacturing—it’s simply easier and more cost effective to make more stuff than reuse old stuff.

Up until 2018, a lot of the U.S.’s recyclables ended up in China. Since then they’ve closed their doors to our waste – meaning it’s the perfect time to step up and take charge of our waste management by modernizing toward a waste-free future. And there are many ways that we can do this together.

A recycling future

Many recycling facilities across the U.S are old and outdated – so our first step is upgrading these with state-of-the-art technology investments. Plenty of amazing tech already exists and is ready to go, including everything from robotic arms that can pick recyclables off conveyor belts at lightning speed to optical sorters that separate recyclable plastics. There are also a host of emerging recycling technologies that break down plastics into the building blocks for new materials - they’re poised to be game changers.


A pull-quote that says, “Companies need to incentivize the use of recycled materials.”

Another big part of shifting our recycling system needs to come via companies incentivizing the use of recycled materials. A commitment to using specific amounts of recycled content in their products and packaging helps a company set off positive chain reactions that create demand for recycled content across their value chain—in short, the more recycled material they use, the more valuable it becomes.

Legislation is a useful tool, too. At the moment there’s a patchwork of policies across North America related to recycling, which makes for confusion among people, businesses and municipalities. Consistent, clear and informed policies can help dispel myths and support the reuse, recovery and use of recycled content in products and packaging.

We’re all in this together, and by working alongside companies, governments, and consumers, we can make positive change.

Unilever’s recycling role

So, what are we doing to help support infrastructure for recycling in the U.S.?

  1. By 2025, we’ll help collect and process more plastic packaging than we sell worldwide by investing and partnering to improve the waste management infrastructure in many of the countries in which we operate.
  2. We’re investors in the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund, which finances recycling and circular economy infrastructure across North America.
  3. We’ve joined The Recycling Partnership in launching the Circular Economy Accelerator, a new initiative that will promote policies to strengthen recycling and shift the United States to a circular economy.

We can all support making improvements to recycling infrastructure. Though there’s a long way to go, by working together with innovators like Closed Loop Partners, other companies, legislators, and consumers, we’re working to strengthen recycling infrastructure in the U.S.

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