One of the first thing I noticed about the holidays season in the United States was the aftermath of bags of trash to the curbside. The idea of packaging and wrapping something in beautiful and expensive paper and padded custom gift boxes away escapes me, but after 20+ years of living in the United States, I have given in to the practice. Still, it bothers me. My father’s once told me how he collected empty cigarette boxes and used the blank insides as writing paper for school. He meant to tell me about the poverty back then to make me more thankful for what I have today, but that image of him standing on a pile of trash, hunched and looking for empty cigarette packs, hunts me in some strange way. What I throw away each year in wrapping paper would’ve supplied him for a whole year’s worth of note taking. I don't know just how I feel about that.
For more than 30 years, the US EPA has been collecting data on waste generation and disposal to measure the success of waste reduction and recycling programs around the country. Each year, the EPA generates a report on their findings. The most recent report is for 2012.
According to this 2012 report, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash that year. Approximately 65 million tons were recycled and 21 million tons were composed.The 34.5% recycling rate doesn't seem so impressive, but it is much better than the 10% back in the 1980s. The EPA report also pointed to some good indicators of progress. For example, we are starting to recognize the impact of throwing away batteries. In 2012, about 96% of lead-acid battery was recovered and prevented from ending up in landfills. Paper recycling rate reached 70%.
“Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling, composting, and disposal of MSW [Municipal Solid Waste] have changed substantially. Solid waste generation per person per day peaked in 2000 while the 4.38 pounds per person per day is the lowest since the 1980’s.”
It’s not all rose and cheeky. We still managed to throw away 164 million tons of municipal solid waste and 21% of that throw-away was food. Plastic amounted to another 18% coming in as the second most popular throw-away material. Of this 164 million tons of throw-away cost, containers and packaging made up of 30% and durable goods accounted for 20%.
Recycling has many benefits. It reduces our demand on existing “green” resources (resources that has never left its organic life cycle). The process of recycling also creates opportunities for capital creation that is otherwise captured by the throw-away mentality. Smart people are making money creating technology and selling what is otherwise trash to willing buyers who uses the material to cut back cost of harvesting green resources. And along a more popular topic, recycling in 2012 accounted for more than 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emission.