Calendar Year 2021
Every year, CalRecycle measures California’s progress on our statewide goal to recycle 75% of all the waste we produce.
The department calculates how much waste California:
- Sends to landfills
- Recycles and
- Exports to other countries for recycling.
Together, this data provides California’s recycling rate for all waste materials and insight into the state’s recycling infrastructure.
California is building a circular economy that can recycle all waste by:
- Reducing how much trash we make
- Creating responsible recycling markets.
This data highlights California’s improvements over the years and ongoing barriers to a circular economy. For example, exporting recyclable scrap to other nations has declined, but is still the path for 16% of California’s recyclable materials.
Waste Generation & Recycling in CA
76.7 Million Tons of Waste Generated
54% Total Landfill 41.5 Million Tons Including: Disaster Debris 921,385 Tons Designated Waste Disposal 723,530 Tons 6% All Other Disposal and Disposal-Related Activities 4.5 Million Tons 6.4 lbs. of trash per person per day
40% Recycling Rate 30.7 Million Tons 16% Exported Recyclables 12.2 Million Tons 12% Recycling & Source Reduction 9 Million Tons 12% Compost, Anaerobic Digestion, Mulch 9.5 Million Tons
In 2021, California exported 12.2 million tons of recyclable materials to foreign countries. Unfortunately, exporting recyclable materials to other countries does not always result in the exported materials being recycled and can also result in negative environmental, economic, and social impacts, especially if the material is contaminated or sent to a place without adequate controls or infrastructure. In some cases, contaminated recyclables are landfilled or dumped into rivers that float into the ocean and migrate into the Pacific Garbage Patch off the coast of California.
Historically, California jurisdictions have received landfill diversion credit when exporting recyclable materials to other countries. With the passage of AB 881 (Lorena Gonzalez, Chapter 501, Statutes of 2021), jurisdictions will no longer receive diversion credit when exporting mixed plastic recyclables. CalRecycle will begin collecting information on the jurisdiction of origin for exports of mixed plastic through the Recycling and Disposal Reporting System (RDRS). This will help ensure that only plastic material exported responsibly will count as diversion from landfills and will open the door to more remanufacturing of recycled materials right here in our state.
International policies influence where our materials are sent. As countries adopt new policies and restrictions, the movement of California’s recyclable materials may shift.
To learn more about these policies, including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, please visit CalRecycle’s webpage on International Policies Affecting Global Commodity Markets.
Top Countries Importing Recyclable Materials from California in 2021
- China 610,325 tons $863.2 Million
- Korea 1.3 Million tons $844.7 Million
- Thailand 1.6 Million Tons $437.6 Million
- Malaysia 1.1 Million Tons $595.6 Million
- Mexico Plastic 1-2: 31,536 Tons Plastic 3-7:11,799 Tons
- Canada Plastics 1-2:714 Tons Plastics 3-7: 2,831 Tons
- Vietnam 2.2 Million Tons $547.6 Million
- Taiwan 2.4 Million Tons $795.2 Million
Exports of recyclable materials to China have been decreasing since 2012, largely as a result of China’s Green Fence and National Sword policies. In 2021—for the first time in many years—China was not one of the top five countries importing recyclable materials from California. In contrast to the more than 13 million tons of recyclable material imported by China in 2011, China imported less than a million tons in 2021.
For the first time, we are tracking plastic exports to Canada and Mexico transported via truck and rail. Agreements between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico dictate what recyclable materials we see moving across borders.
Changes in Seaborne Exports of Recyclable Materials between 2011 and 2021
- China 610,325 tons -95%
- Thailand 1.6 million tons +169%
- Vietnam 2.2 million tons +391%
- Taiwan 2.4 million tons -17%
- Total 12.2 million tons -46%
Types of Materials Exported
California exports many types of scrap materials to other countries ranging from corrugated cardboard to metals to clothing.
- OCC and Kraft Paper 2.3 million tons $909 million vessel value
- Ferrous Metal 4.6 million tons $1.9 billion vessel value
- Non-Ferrous Metal 965,201 tons $2.5 billion vessel value
- Unsorted Mixed Paper 471,226 tons $74.9 Million vessel value
- Other Mise. Paper 466,094 tons $100.9 Million vessel value
- Worn Clothing 113,923 tons $126.7 Million vessel value
The issue of contamination and import restrictions are especially important for plastics and plastic contamination, causing significant decreases in the amount of plastic scrap exported by California. In 2021, California exported less than 100 thousand tons of plastic scrap, compared to almost 1.3 million tons in 2014.
In order to achieve a circular economy, we must address the issue of contamination and get more remanufacturing of recycled materials right here in our state. CalRecycle is working with partners to ensure that products California produces and uses can be efficiently collected and remanufactured into new products here in our state.
Do your part. Recycle smart.
California continues to strive towards its ambitious environmental goals. To learn more about how you can reduce recycling contamination, visit irecyclesmart.com.