Project Drawdown defines recycling as the increased recovery of recyclable materials, not including paper nor organic materials, from the industrial and residential sectors of the economy. This solution replaces the disposal of recyclable materials in landfills.
Recovering and recycling waste materials for use in new products reduces the amount of materials manufactured from virgin sources, produces less greenhouse gas emissions, and reduces the environmental burden created if the waste is disposed in overcrowded landfills. Waste considered in this solution is postconsumer waste, measured at waste collection centers. Recyclable waste types considered for this solution are metals, plastic, glass, and other. Waste that is recyclable makes up around 37 percent of total municipal solid waste generated globally.
Municipal solid waste is defined differently by governments, organizations, and researchers; for this solution, all sources include both household and commercial waste in aggregate values reported. Because the fraction of total waste allocated to households and commercial or industrial waste generators is not often reported, it is assumed that 50 percent of recyclable waste is derived from the industrial sector (US EPA, 1998).
Total Addressable Market
The total addressable market for recyclable waste was calculated using a composite of forecasts, including a linear interpolation of World Bank data from 2010 to 2025, an extrapolation to extend those projections to 2050, and a per capita extrapolation using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is estimated that by 2050, global organic waste will be approximately 1459 million metric tons. Current adoption of both household and commercial recycling in 2014 was estimated at 27 percent of recyclable waste (see Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012).
Due to the lack of reliable future projections of the growth of recycling, three custom adoption estimates were developed based on increasingly ambitious recycling rates per region. In the first estimate, all 2050 non-OECD regional rates are set to the 2014 OECD recycling rate of approximately 57 percent. In the second estimate, non-OECD countries’ recycling target rate for 2050 is set to the current Austrian recycling rate of 63 percent. In the third estimate, recycling rates for non-OECD countries, recycling rates in 2050 are set to correspond with the current best recycling rate of the country in the corresponding region. For example, Asia (sans Japan) region’s recycling rate target is set to 61 percent, which is Singapore’s recycling rate in 2015. From these estimations, adoption boundaries were created from which the Project Scenario 2s were derived.
Impacts of increased adoption of household recycling from 2020 to 2050 were generated based on two growth scenarios. These were assessed in comparison with a Reference Scenario, in which the solution’s market share was fixed at the current levels.
- Scenario 1: In this scenario it is assumed that recycling will increase from present rates to 65 percent of the market, amounting to 941 million metric tons of recycled material in 2050 total.
- Scenario 2: In this scenario, complete optimization of source separation and collection processes as well as aggressive zero waste policy adoption are assumed. The amount of total recycled waste in 2050 is 984 million metric tons.
Financial results were created by comparing the costs of creating and operating material recovery facilities or mechanical-biological treatment facilities to creating and operating sanitary landfills for an equivalent volume of recyclable waste. The marginal first cost is US$10 billion. When revenues from recovered materials are included in comparison to the costs of virgin materials, however, operating recycling facilities costs less than operating landfills and sourcing virgin material feedstocks for industry.
For integration into the Materials Sector, Project Drawdown first considers the reduction in recyclable waste due to the increased adoption of the assumed compostable fraction of bioplastic. The recyclable fraction of waste decreases year to year as the fraction of recyclable plastic used by humanity decreases, so that as the adoption scenarios become optimized the overall adoption of household recycling decreases yet the adoption percentage increases.
In Scenario 1, Project Drawdown found a potential 5.5 gigaton reduction in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions over 2020–2050, corresponding to a 65 percent adoption of recycling of recyclable waste. This came with a net implementation cost of US$10 billion but a net operational savings over the same period of US$142 billion. For Scenario 2, the emissions avoided amount to 6.02 gigatons with a 68 percent adoption.
Household and industrial recycling are keystone elements of a circular economy that provides industry with feedstocks to produce needed goods with fewer emissions. Recycling also generates unmeasured benefits by extending the life of sanitary landfills and creating economic opportunity and activity in material recovery and reprocessing.
The state of currently operating landfills and material recovery facilities could not be easily determined within the scope of this study. Because of the limitations to establish how much waste can be landfilled in currently operating landfills and how much of the capacity of currently operating material recovery facilities is not exploited to its full potential, first costs of such facilities are calculated for installing completely new facilities. Similar limitations of the study have been identified with establishing first costs of introducing new solid waste collection systems by municipalities, and the unused capacity of existing ones. Additionally, much of the complexity of recycling ceramics, rubber, textiles and e-waste have been oversimplified with the approach taken. Finally, it is also likely the development in the technologies of material recycling, product recycling and end-of-pipe technologies such as waste identification and sorting technologies, waste disassembly and shredding technologies, and material recovery technologies will have positive impacts on lowering first costs and operating costs of recycling.
 Pre-consumer waste is found in far smaller amounts: Only 10 percent of total postconsumer waste generated by households, residential, commercial, and institutional subjects. Pre-consumer waste is also almost 100 percent recyclable on-site. The amount of pre-consumer waste that is lost from the material cycle is hence negligible (EU Joint Center 2002).
 Note that recycled paper is excluded and assessed by another Project Drawdown solution.
 Using UN 2015 median urban population forecast.
 Current adoption is defined as the amount of functional demand supplied by the solution in the base year of study. This study uses 2014 as the base year due to the availability of global adoption data for all Project Drawdown solutions evaluated.
 Regions include: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Eastern Europe, Asia (sans Japan), Middle East & Africa, Latin America & Caribbean.
 Integration with other Project Drawdown solutions causes the total addressable market to decrease and the percentage adoption to increase. The adoption percentage of the Scenario 1 post-integration is 81 percent.