Innovative Garbage: Recycling and the Great Technology Race

In today’s world, modern US cities compete in the race to become recycling rockstars. In addition to being a solution to problems associated with garbage build-up, a municipality’s ability to innovate recycling into an effective program for constituents is considered a status symbol that is displayed with pride.

Take San Francisco, for instance. The city recently made headlines for expanding their recycling program to include fabrics and soft plastics, like soup containers and newspaper bags. They are getting closer to their goal of eliminating the need for a trash can. But for the time being things like pet waste still need to go into the trash.

And while cities are competing to be winners of a race that combines technology and environmental stewardship, if you’ve listened to the news you’ve heard mixed information about the effectiveness of recycling. Is it really that good for the environment? Is it cost efficient?

A Brief History of Recycling

The art of recycling is probably older than you think. Prior to the 1920s recycling was commonplace with over 70% of cities running programs to reuse certain materials and reduce waste. During the industrial boom of World War II, companies reused 25% of manufacturing materials.

Modern Recycling

It’s true modern era recycling gained popularity based on a red herring. The impetus for nationwide adoption of contemporary recycling programs was that there is not enough room in landfills for the country’s trash. But research suggests otherwise.

In fact, calculations suggest all of the nation’s trash for 1,000 years could fit in one good sized landfill. The crux of this exploration in science is we have plenty of room to continue burying our garbage. But why do that? Other evidence suggests that up to 90% of trash in a landfill has market value. We are literally throwing money into the trash.

With Americans throwing away 7 ½ pounds of garbage a day per person, we could face a crisis in the future. If not landfill space, we still have to think about the repercussions that stem from an abundance of trash, like health risks and other environmental concerns.

Even with renewed focus on modern era recycling, the US doesn’t come close to the top countries who are cost effectively reducing their trash through modern recycling programs.

International Recycling Rockstars

Germany gets the gold medal for being the top recycling rockstar. They offer 5x more per bottle than American recycling programs. It’s not uncommon to see poverty stricken individuals collecting trash on streets.

But at 5 to 10 cents a bottle in the US, there are other innovative recycling practices that we could adopt from other countries without greatly increasing the cost of recycling programs. Other rockstars include Sweden who turns garbage into profitable energy, Italy who charges constituents for excessive waste and Canada who upcycles products.

The following chart care of Forbes.com shows how America stacks up against the real winners in recycling innovation.

Recycling A Solution

Clearly, America still has a long way to go if we are going to be trailblazers, or even just active participants, in the global mission of environmental stewardship. While people in the US used to question the overall benefits and effectiveness of recycling, years of evidence has defined them.

Recycling offers the following positive impact according to the EPA:

  • Reduces landfill waste
  • Preserves natural resources
  • Reduces pollution
  • Saves energy and presents opportunities to create energy sources
  • Lowers greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to climate change
  • Creates jobs in waste management, manufacturing, energy and other industries

Tonight, let’s raise a recycled glass to San Francisco for leading our country’s recycling revolution. Maybe, with enough input from constituents, lawmakers will begin looking for ways to recycle solutions from countries like Sweden and Canada that help us innovate against environmental issues.

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