Recycling leads to far more than entitled consumerism, when done right it is capable of producing significant results. Given the gravity of the environmental crises we face, it is very easy to be cynical about small scale activities like recycling, but even these small gestures, if repeated often enough, can amount to major savings for the planet. Recycling minimizes landfills which emit global warming causing methane.
In the U.S. there is one day per year when recycling is recognized as part of a national event. November 15 is America Recycles Day (ARD), a day to promote the social, environmental and economic benefits of recycling. This event was started by the National Recycling Coalition in 1997.
ARD has helped millions of Americans become better informed about the importance of recycling and buying products made from recycled materials. Through ARD, the National Recycling Coalition helps volunteer coordinators organize events in hundreds of communities nationwide to raise awareness and educate people about the benefits of recycling.
Waste and recycling
Events like ARD are important because the U.S. has dreadfully low recycling rates. In 2008, only 7.1% of the 30.05 million tons of plastic waste in America was recycled. Compare this to the plastics recycling rate of around 70% found in leading countries such as Germany and Japan.
Although well behind many other countries, overall recycling rates in America have doubled in the past decade. There are over 9,000 curbside recycling programs throughout the US, which has steadily increased since the 1970s. Although Americans are recycling more than ever, they still have a long way to go.
Even though studies show that 81 percent of Americans agree that recycling is an important service, recycling efforts in the U.S. lag far behind their potential. Americans generate 30 percent of the world's garbage, only one third (33.8 percent) of total waste is recycled, and only about half (53.4) percent of all paper products are recycled.
Despite relatively low rates of recycling in the U.S., there is a global demand for recycled materials. Countries like China have demonstrated that there is a market for America’s recyclables. It is estimated that 76 percent of California’s polyethylene terephthalate (PET, the dynamic material found in beverage containers) is exported to China and converted into a variety of products which are then sold back to U.S. buyers.
Value of recycling
As revealed in a UNEP report, a relatively modest investment could radically increase recycling rates. According to the report, an investment of $108 million in the global waste sector annually could increase recycling rates threefold by 2050 and reduce landfill contents by more than 85 percent.
Recycling offers tremendous savings. According to the EPA, recycling one ton of aluminum cans saves the energy equivalent of 36 barrels of oil or 1,655 gallons of gasoline. A single aluminum can saves enough energy to power a television for three hours. By recycling aluminum cans, 95 percent of the energy can be saved, compared with manufacturing a new one. Despite these startling statistics, the National Recycling Coalition reports that every three months, Americans discard enough aluminum into landfills to rebuild the entire U.S. fleet of commercial airplanes.
When it comes to paper, 4,100 kilowatts of electricity and 7,000 gallon of water are saved for every ton of paper recycled. And using recycled glass consumes 40 percent less energy than using new materials.
The amount of energy saved from recycling aluminum and steel cans, plastic PET and glass containers, newsprint and corrugated packaging was equivalent to the amount of electricity consumed by 17.8 million Americans in one year or 11 percent of the energy produced by coal-fired power plants in the United States.
Laws and regulations
There is no national law that mandates recycling, although many state and local governments have introduced recycling requirements like laws that establish deposits or refund values on beverage containers. Other jurisdictions rely on recycling goals or landfill bans of recyclable materials. Some cities enforce fines upon citizens who throw away certain recyclable materials.
On a national level, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees a variety of waste issues. These include regulation of hazardous wastes, landfill regulations, and setting recycling goals. More specific recycling legislation is localized through city or state governments. Landfill bans make it illegal to dispose of certain items in a landfill while other states focus on recycling goals.
Electronic waste in the U.S. is being addressed with regulations at a state and federal level. Ninety percent of US e-waste is exported to China and Nigeria.
Some corporations are providing electronic takeback and recycling programs. Takeback programs offer low-cost to no-cost recycling, some even provide monetary incentives for recycling. In one way or another, many companies are getting involved with recycling programs.
Dell, Sprint and Sony have agreed to help the Environmental Protection Agency encourage certified electronics recycling, as part of the Obama administration's national strategy to encourage better e-waste management.
In 2010, Target rolled out a massive nationwide recycling initiative with centers at the front of each of its 1,740 U.S. stores. The recycling stations accept aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers, plastic bags, MP3 players, cell phones and ink cartridges.
A review of the beverage industry, titled “Waste & Opportunity: U.S. Beverage Container Recycling Scorecard and Report” by the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, gave Nestlé Waters North America the highest rank out of the major companies. In particular, the firm received the highest score on container recovery for establishing better recovery goals than its peers and having stated tactical strategies for attaining those goals.
Companies are also contributing to recycling education including award-winning Recology, a San Francisco-based resource recovery company.
Under the EPA strategy called the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (pdf), the federal government’s purchasing arm will only buy IT products that comply with environmental performance standards, and will ensure that all government electronics are reused or recycled properly.
The strategy also commits the federal government to promote the development of more efficient and sustainable electronic products; support recycling options and systems for American consumers; and strengthen America’s role in the international electronics stewardship arena.
San Francisco's recycling program has a zero waste goal by 2020 and in 2009, they were already at a 78 percent diversion rate. While programs like this are not yet widespread, their success proves curbside recycling does not always result in a market failure.
Sanford, a town of 21,000 in southwest Maine has tripled recycling rates while reducing expenses 50%. The town implemented a trash metering system that requires residents to pay by the bag for curbside collection. According to projections, this will save the town about a quarter of a million dollars in garbage tipping fees.
Over 150 municipalities in Maine and many other towns and cities across the U.S. are employing a trash metering system. WasteZero is one such program, they work with about 300 cities to transform their waste management systems. This has had the dual effect of reducing their landfill waste about 43%, while collectively netting about $65 million in avoided disposal fees or revenues from recycled materials.
Economic incentives and jobs
Powerful economic incentives are not the only reason to recycle. Recycling reduces costs to businesses and creates jobs. The American recycling industry is a $200 billion dollar enterprise that includes more than 50,000 recycling establishments; it employs more than 1 million people, and generates an annual payroll of approximately $37 billion.
As early as 2003, cities like Fort Worth Texas were making millions from their recycling program. Similarly, by 2004, Waukesha County Wisconsin was operating recycling programs at a profit.
Obstacles in the way of wider adoption of recycling practices commonly relate to a lack of coordination between design and recovery. This is a major obstacle in creating closed loop recycling systems for materials.
It is helpful to consult technical guidance on designing packaging to be compatible with common recovery methods. The non-profit organization GreenBlue has developed design for recovery guidelines. These guidelines apply to the design and recycling of aluminum, steel, glass, and paper.
The logic of recycling is overwhelming; it can earn revenues, prevent greenhouse gas emissions and reduce energy consumption. Brazil’s recycling efforts are a $2 billion a year industry that avoids 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. If America's recycling rate doubled the country would save enough energy to supply the electricity needs of 36 million Americans for an entire year.
Recycling is about more than simply feeling good about yourself, recycling is about contributing to an effort that can make a real difference.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.