Tuesday, April 22—The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held an Earth Day briefing about recycling at the local level, with an emphasis on four types of recycling: curbside, compost/organics, building deconstruction/reuse, and electronic waste. Members of the panel discussed the environmental and economic benefits of recycling and ways in which to increase recycling in our homes, businesses, and communities.

Recycling is an easy way for individuals to protect the Earth and help the economy. America's recycling industry accounted for more than one million jobs and over $236 billion in annual revenue in 2001, when the last extensive study was carried out. In 2010, the U.S. recycling industry sold 44 million metric tons of recycled materials valued at almost $30 billion to over 154 countries around the world. In addition to generating income, recycling saves money by reducing spending on landfills (which charge tipping fees and require significant amounts of land). Recycling also produces substantial energy savings of up to 87 percent for mixed plastics and 92 percent for aluminum cans. And, recycling has important environmental benefits: it limits the need to extract new resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012 alone, recycling prevented the equivalent of 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is comparable to taking 33 million passenger vehicles off the road.

In 2012, Americans recycled and composted about 34.5 percent of the 251 million tons of trash they generated over the year. About 11.7 percent of U.S. waste was used as fuel in power plants, and the rest (53.8 percent) found its way to landfills. While these numbers have improved significantly over the past 20 years, there remains much room for improvement. Most developed nations have higher recovery rates than the United States, with Austria leading the way at 63 percent. Denmark, which recycles about 42 percent of its solid waste, burns the remainder for energy and has closed all its landfills. Americans recycle only about 7 percent of their plastic and 21 percent of their glass and aluminum waste. Indeed, Americans throw away enough aluminum cans every month to completely rebuild the country’s commercial air fleet. The construction industry, with its outsized impact (50 percent of the solid waste stream in the United States is building waste) has the greatest potential for improvement.

  • Chaz Miller, Director of Policy/Advocacy, National Waste & Recycling Association, said that recycling is above all about behavior change. In the United States, recycling is primarily carried out through household curbside programs. Seventy percent of U.S. households have access to curbside recycling.
  • Household, commercial and drop-off recyclables go to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Such facilities are served by more than 15,000 trucks and employ 50,000 to 60,000 people in the United States.
  • The United States creates 250 million tons of garbage a year and recycles about 85 tons of it –30 percent of the waste stream. The total waste stream is currently 25 percent paper and about 25 percent food and yard waste.
  • The waste stream is constantly changing and has contracted since the 1990s by about 80 tons per year – this is known as “the evolving ton.” For the first time, the majority of our waste stream is not paper waste, due to the rise of digital alternatives. Plastic waste is up to 25 percent of total waste, even though plastics are becoming lighter-weight.
  • How can we improve recycling rates? According to Miller, we need further penetration of recycling programs in rural areas and in commercial and multi-family buildings.
  • What does the future hold? Probably more mandatory recycling laws and the advent of “dirty MRFs,” which pull recyclables straight out of the trash; more recycling of organics, food and yard waste; sustainable materials management; and further reduction of the waste stream.
  • Nelson Widell, Co-Founder and Partner, Peninsula Compost Group said compost is the original recycling. Mother Nature has recycled organic material since life first emerged, and mankind has long relied on composting as well, in order to improve soils.
  • The largest type of trash that is still relatively "untouched ground" when it comes to recycling is organics. The United States creates between 60 and 70 million tons of organic matter per year.
  • Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York are going to begin mandating the separation of organics, either for composting or to make biofuels using anaerobic digestion. One can compost a wide variety of organics, not just food waste but a lot of other materials as well, such as floral waste, cardboard...
  • The recycling of organic material can provide non-chemical fertilizers, reduce the production of landfill methane, reduce reliance on landfills, and promote reduction of greenhouse gases.
  • The Peninsula Compost Company, built 5 years ago in Wilmington, DE, receives organic material from New York City to Washington, D.C. It is the only such facility on the East Coast that is creating carbon credits.
  • Bradley Guy, Associate Director, Center for Building Stewardship; Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Planning, the Catholic University of America, said recycling construction and demolition (C&D) waste creates 8 jobs per 1,000 tons of waste versus the 1.3 jobs per 1,000 tons created by conventional waste disposal.
  • Forty percent of solid waste in the United States is from construction and demolition, 170 to 200 million tons per year. C&D waste is different than household waste: it is mostly comprised of concrete, masonry, brick, wood, gypsum drywall, and asphalt shingles.
  • The U.S. recycles about 30 percent of C&D waste, not including road and bridge waste, which is already very efficiently recycled. Demolition is the main source of C&D waste at 53 percent. Only 9 percent of waste is from new construction, and renovation accounts for the remaining 38 percent. Relative to other western countries, the United States has neither the best nor the worst C&D industry recycling rate.
  • What we build, we should keep. There is inherent cultural, environmental and economic value embedded in our buildings. We need to promote the use of sustainable materials with lifecycle assessment tools and reuse or recycling to avoid additional the additional energy use needed to produce more materials. Currently, about 0.5 percent of construction waste is reused.
  • Deconstruction is building in reverse. It is the careful disassembly and removal of buildings safely, while maximizing reuse and recycling. Deconstruction, properly carried out, is environmentally responsible, preserves the cultural value of buildings, and reduces the use of additional natural resources. It is more difficult and time-consuming than demolition, but companies are getting better at it.
  • Some states and cities have aggressive C&D waste recycling and reuse efforts. Massachusetts banned 5 major types of construction waste from landfills in 2006 and has reached an 80 percent construction diversion rate. Seattle has a goal of 70 percent diversion by 2020 and requires 20 percent reuse in new construction. Washington D.C.’s goal is 80 percent diversion by 2032.
  • Walter Alcorn, Vice-President of Environmental Affairs, Consumer Electronics Association, introduced the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which represents retailers and manufacturers of electronic devices such as computers, televisions, tablets, and smartphones. In 2011, CEA announced a commitment by its member companies to recycle a billion pounds of electronics by 2016 (the "Billion Pound Challenge").
  • In a report ( published on April 21, 2014, the CEA announced that 620 million pounds of electronics had been recycled in 2013, up from 300 million pounds in 2010. In addition, more than 99 percent of these electronics is now being recycled in third party certified facilities.
  • There is significant resource recovery potential in the electronics industry; however, these products evolve quickly and become obsolete, which creates issues from a recycling and materials management standpoint.
  • A national approach to e-waste is needed according to Alcorn. Right now, there are 25 different state e-waste laws.
  • Businesses need to incorporate recycling into their business models. Best Buy is one example of a company that has integrated recycling into its business plan. One can drop off old electronics for recycling at any Best Buy store, for free.
  • Recycling needs to be convenient for consumers. We need to make e-recycling as easy as purchasing electronics.
  • He noted that the trend is towards smaller electronics and stronger markets for trade-in, refurbishment and recycling, but there are significant challenges remaining. Consumer awareness needs to increase, and we are also dealing with some materials that there is no market for – such as cathode ray tubes, found in old TVs.
  • Recycler third party certification is now nearly ubiquitous among CEA members, making it much easier to verify that recycling is being done responsibly and honestly.