onsidering the role of America (US) in the worldwide economy, industry and environment, it’s interesting that we have a look into its waste treatment statistics and trends.
America is known for producing copious amounts of waste. Specifically, it produces large amounts of waste form quotidian products solid including clothing, food scraps, product packaging, yard clearings, among other things. The aggregate of this quotidian waste is municipal solid waste (MSW). In 2014, the producer of households; hospitals, schools and other institutions; and small business and restaurants generate 234 million tonnes of MSW.
Although Americans are producing more waste than ever before, they are handling the waste in more sustainable ways. Prior to the 1960s, nearly all the domestic waste, and some hazardous waste, was put in landfills. In 1960, only 6% of waste was recycled. Over the past 50 years, waste has been increasingly managed in other ways. In 2013, 53% of MSW went to lad fills. Of the remaining 47%, 26% was recycled, 9% percent was composted, and 13% was combustion to create energy.
In comparison, the average of the EU countries is 26% landfilling, 29% recycling, 16% of digestion/composting and 27% of energy recovery (incineration mainly). Furthermore the EU has set the very ambitious target of reaching a 50% recycling rate for MSW by 2020. Currently only Slovenia and Germany fulfill it, while the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries are also doing well. On the other hand, there are countries like Spain, Greece, Cyprus that still landfill a higher % than the US.
Unlike much of Europe, curbside recycling collection is single stream, all the recyclable are placed in one bin and later sorted at the facility. It takes less effort to recycle with this collection system, and resultantly, America saw an increase in recycling rate when it was first enacted in the 1990s. Of late, some cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles cities have increased their recycling rates to numbers as high as 80% and 76%. However, The overall US combined recycling and composting rates have stagnated at around 34% for the past few years. In addition, due to decreases in profitability in the recycling industry, the industry could be in jeopardy. Single stream recycling allows for lots of contamination. The items that it was too costly to decontaminate in the US were shipped off, but due to increased restrictions, decreased demand, and decreased price, this has been less profitable option. Many recycling facilities are either not making profit or losing money. The US is working to solve this problem.
Besides recycling, advancements in technology have aided in the shift away from landfilling in the past years. Beginning in the 1980s, there has been an increase in the number of waste to energy technologies. In addition, field like environmental engineering has appeared and is growing quickly. This said, there is more that can be done that is not. Even though the USA is the leading proposer and developer of environmental patents, it is still far behind many European countries. Since waste to energy is not necessarily as lucrative as other environmental technologies like energy storage, it does not hold as many people’s interest.
Facing these limitations and the fact that simply managing waste disposal will not eliminate the waste problem, there is push to change waste generation culture and American lifestyle. In the US, there is “throwaway culture.” Many products are designed for convenience and thus are easy to get rid of when used.. For example, 30% of MSW in 2013 was packaging from products. One of the EPA’s current objectives with MSW is reducing the amount of things thrown out. It publishes information and activities to teach people how use and waste less. One recommendation is buying in bulk in order to reduce the amount of packaging disposed .
The United States is making a clear effort to increase the sustainability of its waste management. It may still have a long way to go, but it has the ability to succeed.