America Recycles Day came and went without much fanfare this year. Yet it is still a powerful reminder to us not only how far recycling has come since it became a mainstream practice in the 1970s, but also that it still faces significant challenges.
Recycling is at a crossroads as commodities’ prices are down and processing costs are up. These economics have prompted critics to question the validity of recycling and its future. Yet this comes at a time when we have come to realize that the earth holds a dwindling supply of natural resources to manufacture products, and without recycling and other efforts to preserve those resources, that supply may decline more quickly.
In truth, the ups and downs of recycling are nothing new.
“It’s a commodity business and has always been prone to some volatility,” says Jason Pelz, vice president of recycling, Carton Council, and vice president, environment, Tetra Pak Americas. “Prices and demand have always fluctuated, yet recycling is still typically less expensive than landfilling or burning materials in a waste energy facility: about $3 per household a month. However, people expect it to be profitable.”
Still, one of the most compelling reasons to champion recycling, and continue to pay for this service, is that it’s essential to keep materials in the resource stream and available for future use, says Pelz.
Recycling Has Come Far Since Its Beginnings
So far, recycling has helped to do that. When the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started tracking recycling statistics in 1960, the national rate was about 10 percent. In 2012, the last year on record, it had risen to 34.5 percent, according to the EPA.
Recycling also has helped industries make strides toward conserving the planet’s finite supply of resources. For example, from 1994-2012, the number of US households rose by 25 percent while packaging waste declined from 36 percent to 30 percent of the total waste stream, indicating, in part, that recycling efforts are becoming more effective, notes a waste expert in Live Science. Another encouraging fact is in 2012 51.5 percent of containers and packaging in the U.S. municipal solid waste stream were recycled, according to the EPA.
Despite these improvements, the US ranks 10th in recycling globally, ranking behind Austria (63 percent), Germany (62 percent) and others while generating 25 percent of the world’s waste, notes Planet Aid. So it’s clear there’s room for improvement in the US recycling system. A recent report from As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council shows discarded food and beverage packaging that is not recycled amounts to an estimated $11.4 billion in potential revenue annually.