Mandatory Recycling

Mandatory recycling legislation is among the most controversial policy options at the household level.  The arguments against mandatory recycling range from the costs associated with enforcing such laws, to arguments that recycling is more costly for municipalities than landfilling, to the possible unconstitutionality of examining residents’ garbage containers for recyclable materials.  Proponents counter that in many cases, particularly in states with high tipping fees and landfill taxes, recycling programs can actually be more cost effective than landfilling. 

Does mandatory recycling work?

The question really comes down to whether mandatory recycling is effective.  The research is divided on this subject. 


In a comparison between Norway and the United States mandatory recycling laws were found to be largely ineffective in both cultures.  In contrast, communities like Seattle and San Francisco claim to have seen significant increases in recycling rates within months of implementing mandatory recycling legislation. 


Mandates are less effective than social norms and self-imposed responsibility.  But again, those who already recycle for intrinsic reasons are less likely to have their behavior affected by such laws, and there is evidence that they are effective in compelling participation among the non-recycler group. 

Where is recycling mandatory?

There are only seven states with broad recycling mandates: California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.  Only three of those (California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) fall among the ten highest recycling rates in the country. 


However, mandates may have a greater impact at the local level.  States such as Massachusetts, New York and Oregon have no recycling mandate, yet many of their municipalities have done so on their own with impressive results.

The case of Massachusetts

Massachusetts has not mandated statewide recycling, but many of its municipalities have enacted mandatory programs of their own accord.


Massachusetts has no statewide mandatory recycling laws. However, half of the municipalities have voluntarily adopted mandatory recycling ordinances, bylaws, or regulations. Most of these local requirements regulate single-family residences or those served by the municipal collection programs. A growing number of municipalities are also regulating multi-family properties and businesses (NERC, 2011).


 At 35.7 percent, Massachusetts has the third highest state recycling rate in the nation.  This success is due in part to banning 16 commodities from the state’s landfills and implementation of mandatory recycling at the local level.


Michelle Talsma Everson, 2009, Mandate vs. Volunteer: What works better for recycling?

Feldman and Perez, 2011, Motivating environmental action in a puluralistic regulatory environment

Gorm Kipperberg, 2007, A comparison of household recycling behaviors in Norway and the United States

Rama Lingam, 2011, Mandatory Recycling Laws: Pros and Cons

NERC, 2011, Disposal Bans & Mandatory Recycling in the United States

Sidebar: Is mandatory recycling unconstitutional?

Rama Lingam, practicing lawyer and staff writer for rejects this argument. 


“Even though on a cursory look, the mandatory recycling laws and programs may seem to be an intrusion on the personal liberty of a citizen, they are meant for the larger interest of the society, besides keeping the environment free from pollution and the people, hale and healthy” (Lingam, 2011).


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