America, respected worldwide as an innovative and resourceful nation, is falling down on the job when it comes to recycling. Although its recycling rates have improved dramatically since Congress passed the Solid Waste Disposal Act in 1965, the US is way behind leading European countries that have gotten serious about recycling and turning waste into energy, notes BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University in this infographic.
With landfills around the country overflowing, and many states exporting their waste, recycling is critical to protecting the planet for future generations. Yet the latest figures from the EPA, released in early March, tell us Americans need to step up their efforts: The overall US recycling rate for Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) fell from 34.7 percent in 2011 to 34.5 percent in 2012.
These numbers are disquieting when you put pounds to percentages, using EPA statistics, and realize Americans generated 251 million tons of MSW in 2012 and recycled or composted only 87 million tons of that waste. So every little percentage point counts.
And these numbers become downright alarming when you consider the claims of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Edward Humes, who maintains the EPA’s annual “trash bible” of waste statistics “uses an outdated method that vastly underestimates our waste and overestimates our recycling.” If he is correct, Americans may have even further to go than they think when it comes to recycling. For instance, the Center for American Progress estimates the U.S. generated 390 million tons of trash, or 7 pounds per person per day, in 2013, which is substantially higher than EPA estimates.
Yet there’s also a silver lining in the EPA’s numbers: The nature of the waste stream is evolving to include less solid refuse per capita with more packaging being recycled (51.5 percent in 2012, up from 38 percent in 2000), notes Food Production Daily.
That’s progress, but still not good enough. So how can we increase these numbers further?
The good news is this is a very attainable goal. As Humes notes in his 2012 book, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” and summarizes in Forbes, “Waste is the one big social problem anyone can do something about—and doing it now only helps the planet, but fuels prosperity too.”