What exactly is being thrown away? What is being recycled? Skyrocketing, recycling in the U.S. has increased continually over the last 30 years. The rate of recycling—which, in 1980 sat at less than 10 percent of the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generated—now includes more than 34 percent of total MSW.
Adopting a hawk’s eye, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took a look at our country’s accumulation of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). Simultaneously, the EPA examined our recycling and disposal trends, and then compared those findings to the waste data that they’ve collected for the past three decades.
Voila! The beta was compiled into a golden report—Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United State: Fact and Figures for 2012—for us to better understand waste habits and prompts the question: how much energy (ergo money) is saved through waste recovery?
Toys and Ingredients
For the inquisition, the EPA took to examining both materials and products. Like the ingredients that go into a cake, materials create products. In recycling, materials are recovered and reprocessed such as plastic milk cartons, metal curtain rods and glass microbrew bottles. Alternatively, products are manufactured out of materials, purchased and utilized by consumers such as romantic novels and Ikea furniture.
To pinpoint how to recover the greatest amounts of materials the EPA first needs to uncover how those materials are being used and discarded: What exactly is being sent to the landfill?
Cheeseburgers and Potato Salad
The report found that 251 million tons of material MSW was generated in 2012. The largest slice of the pie was made up of organic materials such as paper and paperboard, yard trimmings, and food waste. (Food?! This is mind-boggling when you consider that 33 million adults and 16 million children lived in food insecure households in 2013, according to Feeding America.)
When families and couples need to pinch pennies an obvious go-to method is to nix dining out in exchange for cooking at home. Whether you pay for the dining service or are able to take the time to dish-up dinner at home, being conscious about how much you consume on your plate can save you a pretty dime. In other words, take home more leftovers. You might get two—or three or four—meals out of one, and help decrease our culture’s food waste: almost 15 percent of overall MSW materials.
All of that tissue paper…
On the other side, containers and packaging is the largest bite of MSW product generation. Do you ever unpack a new toy and the box, plastic, and paper wrap that it was wrapped in is left in a pile on the living room rug? You’re left thinking, what can I do with this stuff? Those figures amount to 30 percent—more than 75 million tons—of MSW generated within the product category. If manufacturing companies redesigned their packaging to be minimalist and incorporate recycled materials money could definitely be save. Recycling and combustion facilities would receive less waste and save money, too.
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Economic Benefits of Recycling
To paint an illustrative picture of how recycling actually saves energy the EPA considered the CO2 reduction that’s been achieved via recycling materials.
These colorful comparisons popped out:
“Every single ton of mixed paper that is recycled is the equivalent of saving 165 gallons of gasoline.”
“Recycling and composting 87 million tons of MSW saved more than 1.1 quadrillion Btu of energy—that’s the same amount of energy that’s consumed by nearly 10 million U.S. households in an entire year.”
“Nationally, Americans recycled and composted almost 87 million tons of municipal solid waste. This provides an annual benefit of more than 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions reduced, comparable to the annual GHG emission from over 33 million passenger vehicles.”
(In future reports, the EPA also takes into account the CO2 that could occur in alternative waste management scenarios, which begets the net overall benefit of recycling.)
While recycling is still being refined and waste trends are being studied, it’s clear that improving the way that energy is utilized can benefit our environment as well as our personal expenditures. Consider, also, how much energy is required to move, organize, and combust trash. What if our businesses could save money by creating less waste?
Well, they can: recycling is less expensive than trash disposal and purchasing remanufactured goods can save bills, too. (Also, if companies spent less money on bulky packaging it would be incredible to see how many banknotes would be shaved off production costs.)
In your household or business, how can you play a role in recycling?