What's recycled the most? Most people would guess newspapers and beverage containers, but the most widely recycled product in terms of both percentage and tonnage is actually asphalt pavement.
A report from the former Federal Highway Administration shows that 80% of the asphalt pavement that's removed each year during widening and resurfacing projects is re-used. The 80% rate for using reclaimed asphalt pavement (RAP) is substantially higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recycling rates of 60% for aluminum cans, 56% for newsprint, 37% for plastic soft drink bottles, 31% for glass beverage bottles and 23% for magazines.
But most people don't know that. In a survey of 1,000 adults commissioned by the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), Americans ranked asphalt pavement as being recycled the least among nine products. When asked which of the nine is recycled the most, 35% of Americans said paper, followed by 31% for aluminum and 21% for plastic. When asked which is recycled the least, 29% said asphalt pavement, followed by 18% for rubber and 16% for yard waste.
"Asphalt pavement admittedly isn't prominent on the public's radar screen for recycling. But every year, approximately 73 million tons of reclaimed asphalt pavement are reused, or nearly twice as much as the combined total of 40 million tons of recycled paper, glass, aluminum and plastics," said Mike Acott, president of NAPA. EPA figures show that Americans recycle only 28% of items in the municipal solid waste stream, which the EPA hopes will increase to 35% by the year 2005.

According to Byron Lord, deputy director of the Office of Pavement Technology of the former Federal Highway Administration, "For every ton of municipal solid waste, our nation generates about 35 tons of nonhazardous industrial solid waste. Our landfill space would be overwhelmed if it weren't for largescale recycling of industrial products such as asphalt pavement. The asphalt paving industry is truly a leader in this respect."
Asphalt pavement accounts for 92% of the nation's highways and roadways, and RAP is used as part of new pavement, roadbeds, shoulders and embankments, according to NAPA.
Acott noted that using RAP has economic benefits for taxpayers, as well as environmental benefits. "Using RAP results in lower costs. We use less virgin material and, by avoiding trips to the landfill, we use less diesel fuel. Considering today's fuel prices, these savings add up considerably for taxpayers on public road projects," Acott said.
Other findings from NAPA's recent survey help portray the state of recycling in America. For example, 46% of Americans rated their own interest in recycling as high or very high, while 33% said it was average and 20% said it was low or very low.
They gave even lower marks to their community's interest in recycling. Only 36% rated their community's interest as high or very high, while 37% said it was average and 23% said it was low or very low. Interest in recycling was higher in Northeast and West than in the rest of the country.
Most Americans take part in at least some sort of recycling program. The survey showed that more than three-quarters (77%) said that recycle at least some aluminum cans. About two-thirds (67%) said they recycle newspapers, along with 65% who said they recycle plastic bottles; 60% glass bottles; 58% magazines; 55% plastic bags, 54% tin cans; and 53% who said they recycle white paper.