U.S. residents produce the highest per capita volume of trash of any nation
Let’s observe that North Americans (as in U.S. residents) produce just under 4.5 pounds of trash per person per day. This is exceptional in that it is the highest per capita amount of trash of any country. At the same time, the creation of new landfills to hold this trash is frowned upon by both citizens and government, and recycling has been instituted widely (but not widely enough) to make new landfills often unnecessary…in some places. Unfortunately, the rate of recycling has not increased in about a decade, and is stuck at ~34 percent. In 1990 it was 16 percent and in 2005 it was 31.4 percent. Paper/cardboard, plastic, metals and glass represent just over half of the total being recycled.
Recycling is pragmatic, but is both labor intensive and costly. Many cities consider it an expensive luxury they cannot afford. Eliminating curbside recycling can save even a modest-size community hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. If a fee is charged to residents for curbside service, recycling percentages drop significantly. Large West Coast cities that mandate recycling have significantly higher rates (i.e., Portland and Seattle are at 60 percent and San Francisco is at 80 percent), but the average across the country is less than one-third. This is not how it was supposed to be.
While the numbers of landfills have actually declined overall, average landfill size has increased. This makes sense because populations have increased by many millions over the last few decades and recycling is essentially still nonexistent for certain economic sectors, such as the vast majority of fast-food and coffee-related locations. But the lack of commitment to recycling by communities and individuals is the functional center of the fact that more than two-thirds of the country’s trash is not being recycled. And it’s mostly about cost.
It’s not that recycling doesn’t generate income and economic activity. A lot of people who need additional income collect beverage containers because they are paid well enough for doing so at recycling centers and recycling machines outside of supermarkets. Many products contain recycled materials, which means there’s a supply chain of collection, distribution, processing and manufacturing. But economic activity is not the primary reason most communities and individuals recycle.
Burying millions of pounds of trash is certainly problematic. The costs for hauling truckloads of waste many miles are both economic and environmental. Added to this are the costs for materials that could have otherwise been acquired from many of the items discarded into landfills. Recycling metal, plastic and glass containers uses far less energy than is required to manufacture them from new materials. The cumulative effects on climate are less as well. Taken as a whole, it’s questionable whether the savings for not having curbside recycling are really as valuable as they appear to be when all the others costs of not recycling are accounted for.
The community I live in went to single-source recycling a couple of years ago. Single source means all recycling items are placed into the same recycle cart rather than having to be separated by category. This does mean higher labor costs to separate these items at the other end, but given that recycling went up by more than 25 percent in just the first six months, the expense seems justified. Adding or expanding landfills is not common in California given that the majority of 38 million people live within an hour of the coastline and land is expensive. The cost of community recycling programs can be less than the cost of hauling so much trash so far, and the environmental benefits have value beyond that.
The desire to recycle is both a personal one and something that can result from social norming. I described this phenomenon in detail almost two years ago. Research has shown that getting people to change their behaviors can be more effectively accomplished by telling others how many of their neighbors or citizens are doing the right thing (recycling) or not doing the wrong thing (not recycling). In other words, using accurate data, individuals are informed regarding the social norms of those around them, and their sense of community then influences their choices and behaviors.
The path to the greater good is not always obvious or at least compelling given the numbers of issues the path represents. One can make pragmatic cases for them, but without some emotional appeal that triggers first concern and then action, many will remain unmotivated. It often comes down to moral suasion, a class of persuasion that becomes less compelling the greater the hysteria factor in an appeal to action. Care and concern can have positive long-term effects on opinion, behavior and involvement.
The lack of recycling has created renewed interest in other technologies. One that might seem a step backward is incineration. The difference is, improved technology for handling large quantities of trash in environmentally sustainable processes makes these new incinerators effective while providing potential additional benefits. In Europe, high-tech incinerators are sources of energy and/or heat to communities. As always there are trade-offs, in this case a shifting of carbon footprints from transporting trash to distant landfills to greater use of natural gas for incinerating it. Although expensive to build, modern incinerators may be necessary to accomplish what recycling was supposed to.
Recycling is like so many aspects of modern societies — a service many value but are not always willing to pay for. Fewer trash trucks making fewer round trips to landfills, reuse of resources and increased use of recyclable containers and packaging all contribute to smaller carbon footprints and more sustainability in an increasingly crowded world. With a current world population just over 7 billion (with 80 percent living in metropolitan zones) and a revised projection of 10.4 billion by 2050 (only 3.5 decades from now), the percentage of recycling will become ever more important.