Recycling's future: Sorting it out

Recycling in the United States has made enormous strides over the last 40 years, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. I learned at a recent Residential Recycling Conference in Chicago that although approximately 75 percent of our waste is recyclable, we currently only recycle about 30 percent. The other 45 percent goes into landfills.

Reducing the amount of trash we discard, reusing products, and recycling as much as possible helps conserve energy and reduces pollution and greenhouse gases. As our Make an Impact website explains, waste is created throughout the life cycle of a product -- resource extraction, manufacturing, and disposal. For example, it takes seven times more energy to manufacture aluminum using virgin material than recycled material. Also, while many landfills capture the methane they release, not all do. Solid waste landfills are the third largest source of U.S. emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

What are the barriers to increasing the amount we recycle – and decreasing our trash?  

In communities where recycling is available, the uptake is impressive, more than 90 percent participation rates in many cases. So why aren't more communities offering recycling to residents? The answer, as usual, comes down to economics. It costs money to launch and sustain a recycling program. From recycling bins to curbside pickup to processing centers, local governments have to figure out how to cover the costs of waste and recycling. At a time when public budgets are under enormous pressure, recycling may not be a top priority. 

The recycling industry has grown enormously over the last couple of decades. It currently employs about 1.1 million people. To keep the industry growing, we must first figure out how to make recycling easier and more cost-effective. For example, local governments should consider employing single-stream recycling, in which all recyclables go into one bin for sorting at a processing facility. They could build processing centers that cover a broader geography.

Increasingly towns and municipalities are implementing a ‘pay as you throw’ approach to waste management, charging households a fee based on the amount of trash sent to the landfill. We also need to address the vast amount of food we waste in the U.S. and deal with the growing volume of e-waste, such as old computers or cell phones.

Many innovative programs across the country are viewing waste as a commodity. One example is Freecycle, where people are giving (and getting) furniture, housewares and other stuff for free near where they live. It's all about reuse and reduce – key tenets in the recycling world. 

The bottom line is we need more programs that put a value on our trash. If we hope to create a sustainable model for effective, massive recycling, we will need to figure out how to create a robust and economically sustainable market for the massive amount of waste we produce.