The recycling rate in the United States more than doubled between 1990 and 2013 and has remained steady. Many municipalities make it easy to recycle by allowing single-stream and/or free recycling. Over 94% of the U.S. population has recycling available to it between curbside and drop-off programs.
That rate certainly can be increased. The supply of recyclables does not meet the demand for them, and recyclables easily can be shipped around the country and the world. Germany recycles 66.1% of its waste, and the average rate in the European Union was 45% (in 2015).
Societies have made great strides in recycling, but we can do more. If everyone on Earth recycled what they could, we’d be living on a different planet.
A New “Natural” Resource
Recycling technology has become efficient enough that the Bureau of International Recycling believes it to be the 7th greatest natural resource available to humans. The Bureau, which has called for March 18, 2018, to be declared “Global Recycling Day,” is a recycling industry association which stresses the importance of the recycling stream.
Over 40% of the world’s steel is made from scrap. Recycling steel uses 75% less energy, 90% less raw materials, and 40% less water. The reduction of pollutants is at similar rates. Recycled steel and iron can be turned into car parts, construction materials, and appliances.
Plastics also form a resource for recycling. Recycled plastics can be remade into plastic jugs and bottles and eco-friendly packaging materials. More importantly, they are found in clothes, furniture, and building materials. They thus replace virgin resources. The BIR estimates that if Europe recycled or recovered all plastic waste, it would cover 7% of the EU quota for carbon emission reduction.
The cleaner processes used in recycling benefit not only developed nations but developing ones. Developing nations can continue their development but have less environmental damage along the way, if they adopt recycling programs. Recycling provides both direct and indirect economic benefits.
The Philippines produces almost three million metric tons of plastic waste annually. A significant percentage of the plastic waste ends up in the ocean—it is dumped illegally or is poorly contained in landfills. This waste causes harm to the tourist and fishing industries—an estimated cost of $375 per ton of uncollected mix waste.
Many waste streams worldwide are potential income streams. A metric ton of recycled clothes can bring in almost $2,000 against a collection cost of nearly $700. Picking and sorting waste bottles can earn the picker a daily wage in a developing country.
The key to economic recycling is aggregation. Bringing the waste into centralized depots allows for efficient and cost-effective (and profitable) recovery. One example is found in Telangana, India. A private company, Waste Ventures India, began converting town organic waste into compost. The company then sells the compost to farmers as fertilizer—covering around 45% of the area’s fertilizer needs. The organic waste, which might otherwise have attracted vermin and leached into the soil, is put to use.
It’s been estimated that if the U.S. were to achieve a recycling rate of 75%, it would produce a net total of 1.5 million new jobs. Similar increases in jobs, and thus in personal and national prosperity, would benefit people around the world. As the economic stress of poverty lessened, international tensions might ease.
Recycling reduces the need to extract and process raw materials. Extraction and processing are a messy business; it’s also costly. Extraction uses a lot of water and can pollute even more water supplies. Recycling cuts down on the damage the need for raw materials causes.
Organic material dumped in a landfill decomposes anaerobically—without oxygen. That decomposition produces both methane and carbon dioxide. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, making landfills the third-largest producer of methane emissions in the U.S. The problem is similar worldwide.
Composting, on the other hand, produces far lower emissions, most of which are from the machinery used to run the composting plant (if done on a large scale). Also, the use of compost as fertilizer rather than artificial fertilizer reduces the excess of nitrogen and phosphorus running off into rivers and lakes.
Recycling organic material separately and controlling the production of methane may also produce a burnable fuel at low cost. While burning methane does produce carbon dioxide, it may also generate electricity, which will benefit people, relatively cleanly.
Universal recycling would reduce demand for scarce resources. Those scarce resources, including water, lead to tensions both within and between countries. Recyclable materials can easily be shipped from one place to the other, and different countries can process them in ways which benefit their people best.
Recycling is the next big thing, globally. All the pieces are in place—it’s now just going to take an act of will.