California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary: Curbside Recycling, the Next Generation

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Curbside recycling has become as American as apple pie. More than 139 million Americans now have access to curbside collection of a myriad of recyclable materials. More Americans recycle now than vote.

California was an early leader in the tremendous growth in this sector of the recycling industry. One of the first responses of most communities in California to the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (AB 939, Sher, Chapter 1095, Statutes of 1989) was to develop some form of curbside recycling program.

The public and private sector have both invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the past decade in collection vehicles and processing facilities to make curbside recycling an everyday reality for most Californians. However, the programs of the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s are starting to transform into the next generation of curbside recycling programs.

Program Characteristics

The next generation of programs is striving to collect ever more recyclable materials as efficiently as possible. That has led to a number of key developments:

  • Pay-As-You-Throw programs that provide residents with incentives to recycle more and waste less.
  • Larger, more sophisticated material recovery facilities (MRFs) that can process more materials, with little or no residues remaining after processing.
  • Availability of recycling programs that accept more materials—particularly mixed paper, more types of plastics (despite continuing marketing problems), and corrugated cardboard boxes.
  • Commingling of recyclable materials to collect more materials more quickly.
  • Co-collection of garbage, recyclables, and/or organics in the same truck, but with different compartments.
  • Collection of food discards and food-soiled paper with yard trimmings.
  • Automated and semi-automated collection.
  • Collection from single-family, multifamily, and small businesses in one truck.

Studies completed for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in California and nationally provide reliable information on the impacts of demographics, program designs, and financial features on the performance of curbside recycling programs.

The SWANA study results are “additive.” If recycling in a community is already at 12 percent, the effect of moving to commingled collection (using the California results) would be to add two to four percentage points of recycling. The new recycling total would be 14 to 16 percent. Adding multiple changes together will yield results that are close to (but not exactly) what would be expected.

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Table 2.  Estimated Impacts of Program Design Options on Recycling Diversion (Add factors to existing diversion rates)

Program feature

Estimated Recycling Impact




Variable rates

+5 to 6 % points

+3 to 4 % points

Weekly recycling collection

+2 to 4 % points

not available

Add materials

+2 to 4 % points

+3 to 5 % points

Commingled Collection

+1 to 3 % points

+2 to 4 % points

Older programs


+3 to 5 % points

No separate recycling charges


+2 to 4 % points

Providing bins


+1 to 2 % points

Source: Lisa Skumatz, “Nationwide Diversion Rate Study – Quantitative Effects of Program Changes on Recycling and Green Waste Diversion: Beyond Case Studies,” prepared for the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), SERA, Inc., Seattle, WA, 1996. “Achieving 50% in California: Analysis of Recycling, Diversion, and Cost-Effectiveness,” prepared for California Chapters of SWANA, SERA, Inc., Seattle, WA, 1999.  © SERA, Inc., used with permission of author.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

The SWANA California study found an average curbside recycling cost of about $2.40 per household per month. This information is somewhat weighted toward larger communities. The costs of combined curbside recycling and yard waste programs appeared lower in communities with older recycling programs and in suburban or rural areas. Costs also dropped in lower population areas and in communities that used mixed waste MRFs.

Solid waste bills across the state vary widely. In the San Francisco Bay Area, rates in 1999 for 30 gallons of service (with other programs included) varied from just under $7 to almost $24 monthly for weekly collection service. The California SWANA study found an average “garbage-only” cost statewide of about $15.40 per household per month. These costs tended to be lower in urban and high population areas where there was more competition for services.

The SWANA California study also examined which program features were associated with higher and lower program costs. Table 2 summarizes program changes that might be most cost-effective for a community.

Changes to programs that add lots of tonnage (Table 2) and show reduced or very low costs (Table 3) present the most feasible options for communities.

The combination of these findings suggest that the best ways for communities to most cost-effectively increase tonnage would be to:

Implement Pay-As-You-Throw or Variable rates

This approach would provide the largest increase in tonnages for recycling, and cost impacts are small. (Other studies have shown either no increases or decreases in costs when implementing Pay-As-You-Throw rates in most communities). Pay-As-You-Throw rates also increase yard waste recycling tonnages and encourage residents to think before they buy. This prevents waste generation (the cheapest waste management strategy).

Table 3.  Estimated Percentage Changes in Program Costs from Program Choices and Changes

Program Feature

Estimated cost impact

Commingled collection

20-35% lower

Less than weekly collection frequency

20-40% lower

Making recycling program mandatory

10-25% lower

Older program

10-25% lower

Automating collection

5-15% higher

Adding variable rates program

10-20% higher

Adding new materials

15-35% higher

Source: Lisa Skumatz, “Nationwide Diversion Rate Study – Quantitative Effects of Program Changes on Recycling and Green Waste Diversion: Beyond Case Studies,” prepared for the Solid Waste Association of North America, SERA, Inc., Seattle, WA, 1996.  © SERA, Inc., Used with permission of author.

Commingled collection

Commingling results in extra recycling tonnages and lower costs. However, this process requires suitable processing facilities to be successful.

Add materials

Adding more eligible materials to a recycling program will result in significant increases in the amount of recyclables recovered through your programs. This will add two to five percentage points (e.g., mixed/additional paper, more plastic types, cardboard, glass, metal cans).

Every-other-week collection

Lower frequency collection decreases costs dramatically and only leads to small decreases in recycling tonnage. The tonnage decrease could be offset by other changes. Changes in frequency of collection require more user education to cover the recycling pickup schedule in their neighborhood.

Tips for Replication

  • Implement Pay-As-You-Throw/“a can is a can” garbage rates, with recycling costs included in the rate.
  • Consider commingled collection if sufficient processing facilities are located in your area.
  • Phase in automated or semi-automated collection vehicle if program begins in mid-contract, or specify them for the beginning of a new contract.
  • Consider co-collecting two of the three primary materials (garbage, commingled recyclables and/or yard wastes) in the same vehicle.
  • Collect food discards (all types, if possible) and soiled paper with yard trimmings. The yard trimmings must be collected in rolling carts and a unified composting system must be present.
  • Collect recyclables from small businesses through curbside recycling programs.
  • Consider adding materials when you make other changes to improve collection efficiencies.
  • Use pilot programs to test new technologies and approaches. Use focus groups and other marketing techniques to scientifically evaluate the success of pilot programs.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, Gary Liss & Associates, Skumatz Economic Research Associates, and the Institute for Local Self Reliance (Washington, DC), prepared this summary.

The statements and conclusions in this summary are those of the contractor and not necessarily those of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), its employees, or the State of California. In addition, the data in this report was provided by local sources but not independently verified. The State and its contractors make no warranty, express or implied, and assume no liability for the information contained in this text. Any mention of commercial products, companies, or processes shall not be construed as an endorsement of such products or processes.

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Last updated: October 5, 2015
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