The Growth of Recycling

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Recycling has come a long way over the years, and this is a good thing since America creates nearly 544 million tons of waste per year.

Greater efficiency

Roughly 146 million tons of solid waste that was previously destined for landfills is now being recycled. Curbside recycling is exploding with programs available in 9,000 different American cities. There are also over 3,000 community composting programs. The combination of greater personal and  community effort has helped to decrease municipal solid waste disposed of per person to lower levels than in 1960. That’s a huge improvement in efficiency.

Saving energy

Recycling doesn’t just reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills, it saves energy too. The energy saved from recycling just one aluminum can, the world’s most commonly recycled beverage container, can run a television for 2 hours. The recovery rate for aluminum cans reached a remarkable rate of 65.1% in 2011. That’s a lot of TV time!

Did you know?

The list of items that can be recycled is enormous, and growing every day. In addition to usual items such as bottles, paper, plastic and aluminum, specialized recycling facilities can reprocess engine oil, paint, textiles, electronic waste, beds, light bulbs and even video tapes.

Room for improvement

While America has come a long way by reducing per-capita solid waste since 1960, there are still more Americans today than there were in 1960 so we’re still producing more waste-far more-and all this waste will have to have somewhere to go. Here are a few areas for improvement in our nation’s waste management system.

  • Manufacturing-Product manufacturing is still not completely focused on making easily recycled containers. Many deodorant bottles for instance, are made of mismatched plastics that make them difficult to process. Also, new products are being invented that aren’t as easily recyclable as their old counterparts. For example, the cups used for single serve coffee brewers are, out of necessity, resistant to heat which is needed to recycle plastic. Alternatively, most traditional coffee filters can be composted.
  • Lack of infrastructure-While many items can be recycled, there aren’t many practical outlets in most areas for niche items. Many curbside programs still don’t accept items such as textiles and light bulbs and specialized centers are few and far between.
  • Food waste-Americans waste 33 tons of food annually. It’s not hard to imagine how much landfill space could be saved if it was all composted instead; not to mention the benefit to farmers through low-cost compost.

Future advances

New technologies are being developed to more easily sort and increase the number of items that make their way to the recycle bin instead of the municipal waste dump. One such concept, developed by professor Valerie Thomas of Georgia Institute of Technology, would use UPC codes and RFID tags to identify waste at retrofitted centers and send the proceeds directly back to consumers, thus making it more likely that items will be recycled instead of carelessly discarded.

A program at a Chilean university is working to turn a larger segment of household trash into materials for building construction. The university project has already developed a way to convert organic material to inert material which can be used to make bricks out of mixed organic and inorganic waste. Project managers are hoping to make this the construction material of the future, thus diverting millions of tons away from landfills across the globe.

Whatever the future holds for technology, it is clear that Americans are more willing than ever to reduce, reuse and recycle, and that recycling has a bright future in our community as well.


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