The USA hasn’t always been the fastest country to embrace recycling and standards are still uneven across states and cities, but a lot of progress has been made over the last few years and waste management is better than it’s ever been. There’s still a lot that could be done to improve things of course, but before trying to make any plans it helps to know the size of the challenge.
The USA has the world’s largest economy and very high levels of consumption, so the amount of waste produced is enormous. Every year the USA produces over 250 million tons of household trash, around a ton for every adult in the country. At the turn of the century less than a sixth of that was recycled. Now the figure is nearly a third, and rising. In some sectors it’s a lot better than that – in 2009, the most recent year of full statistics, 53.4 percent of all paper waste was recycled. These numbers aren’t bad at all, but some countries are doing even better – Germany recycles half of municipal waste, and burns most of the rest in clean incinerators and composts almost everything that remains. Practically nothing goes to landfill.
Continue reading “Recycling News (8-17-2014)” »
It’s hard to grasp how fast electronics have transformed the world, and one of the most startling changes is the way technology has changed resource use. Meeting the demand for new electronic devices has been a massive boost for several mining industries, with a third of all copper and silver that’s extracted now being used for technology manufacturing. Even more striking is the fact that 80 percent of all extraction or rare earth and platinum group metals took place in the last 30 years. The problem is that this rate of extraction is putting resources under huge pressure. More rare earth metals have been sent to landfills in scrap electronics than exist in all known reserves.
Continue reading “Recycling News (8-10-2014)” »
Every day thousands of tons of food go to landfill in the USA. There’s a lot we can do to reduce this, including better labeling, education about food safety and more sensible shopping, but inevitably there will always be a degree of waste. Unfortunately food is a bad thing to dispose of in landfill; as it decomposes it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more powerful and destructive than carbon dioxide. Now a US Air Force cadet has helped to develop a solution that’s designed to solve this problem for deployed military units, but has the potential to be scaled up for large-scale general use.
Continue reading “Recycling News (8-3-2014)” »
From a waste point of view one of the biggest changes over the past fifteen years has been the huge expansion of the market for lithium-based batteries, with the most common type being rechargeable lithium ion cells. Until the mid-1990s the most common use for these was in specialist camera batteries but now they’re become ubiquitous. Cellphones, laptop and tablet computers, almost all modern MP3 and media players, and increasingly flashlights and similar devices – they’re all powered by lithium ion batteries.
Continue reading “Recycling News (7-27-2014)” »
The USA is a great believer in free trade and while the tariff situation isn’t perfect – there are more obstacles to trade than there should be – it’s a lot more flexible than many other countries. Where there are tariffs they’re usually aimed at restricting certain imports to protect key US industries. There’s one field where other countries’ export tariffs are creating obstacles to some fast-growing US companies though, and that’s recycling. Now the International Trade Commission is leading a drive to lower regulatory barriers on shipments of high-value scrap.
An advanced economy like the USA produces a lot of waste that’s loaded with potentially valuable materials. Often it’s not economical to reprocess it here, but it has a substantial value to the right buyer. In 2013 the USA exported nearly 43 million tons of scrap, including old electronic devices, steel-rich scrap and plastics. As well as keeping it out of US landfills these exports earned $24 billion, but that sum could have been a lot more if companies didn’t face so many tariffs and over-zealous regulations.
The USA already has reciprocal agreements with many countries that ease the shipping of recycling, because it’s recognized that the trade in scrap has many economic and environmental advantages. It might seem counter-intuitive to use energy and shipping space hauling trash abroad, but if the alternative is it being buried or incinerated there’s a significant environmental gain. Recycling facilities aren’t evenly distributed either; there are specialist plants in the USA that import waste from abroad and process it into valuable materials, for example. At the same time much US scrap can be reclaimed more efficiently at foreign plants, such as consumer lamps and flat screens – although that’s changing as BLUBOX sites open in the USA.
Of course that’s another point – as well as waste, recycling equipment itself is a valuable component of international trade and it’s to everyone’s advantage to keep that trade as free as possible. After all if recycling technology becomes more widespread then more waste can be reprocessed. Trade agreements cover equipment including shredders, balers and magnetic separators. There are some serious gaps in the agreements, though.
Now the International Trade Commission is investigating the impact of tariffs and looking at ways to persuade other governments to ease or remove them. Last year US companies exported billions of dollars’ worth of scrap iron and plastic, plus millions of tons of paper and fiber destined for recycling. Out of the ferrous scrap $700 million was subjected to import duty, and for paper waste that figure was $300 million. The recycling industry is increasingly competitive and excessive tariffs can make it uneconomical to export; profit margins are often thin and faced with the extra charge many companies will just give up on the idea of operating internationally. The ITC sees a significant opportunity to improve the balance of trade and ease the US landfill situation at the same time; the solution is to persuade other countries to match the US policy of not charging tariffs on imported scrap. It’s a simple solution and if governments can be persuaded to sign up to it a valuable, environmentally friendly business sector could grow enormously.
The key to recycling is effectively separating waste into categories of materials that can be efficiently reused. The current trend is for most of this sorting to be done by householders and local recycling centers – more and more cities and communities provide multiple bins for different categories of waste, and dumps sort through garbage to extract anything that has residual value. The problem is the process isn’t all that efficient and a large amount of waste still goes to landfill. That doesn’t just take up landfill space – pollution can leak out of buried waste for years, damaging the soil and contaminating ground water.
Continue reading “Recycling News (6-30-2014)” »