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.
So how can Americans be encouraged to recycle more than they already do? Providing extra trash cans for separated waste is one solution, but there are other approaches that can be taken too. Many states encourage recycling of bottles by mandating a refundable deposit on empties but these are often so low that people don’t bother. Germany has some lessons here, too. The deposit on glass bottles is low, because they’re made from sustainable materials – it’s about 11 cents US. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans attract a much higher deposit, around 33 cents. That means there’s a much bigger incentive to return them.
One possibility that hasn’t had much attention so far is reducing the amount of packaging. Some countries operate a “green spot” system, where manufacturers get tax credits or other incentives for reducing the amount of packing material they use. Many stores also have bins after checkout where customers can remove and discard outer packaging, so the store can dispose of it more efficiently in bulk.
Electronic waste is a major and growing concern in the USA, with recycling rates currently low. Scrap electronics don’t take up a lot of space but they contain valuable and often scarce metals, and can also cause serious pollution if sent to landfill. State and federal legislation is developing, and new technology allows much of the valuable content to be recovered, but right now the volume of e-scrap is growing faster than the capacity to process it.
The USA was slow to get started on recycling municipal waste but has done very well at catching up. The overall recycling rate is now higher than in many European countries that are often quoted as good examples, but it could still be improved. However there is a lot of potential profit in recycling, which should drive innovation and expansion over the next few years.