Recycling and Solid Waste

During the past decade, the national recycling rate (including composting) has climbed to 32%. Hundreds of communities have surpassed this level. Dozens report waste reduction levels above 50%. What features are common to these successful programs? It is usually a combination of good rules that together help to achieve a high rate of recycling and composting. Some of these strategies include:

  • targeting a wide range of materials for recovery (beverage containers, yard trimmings, multiple paper grades, construction and demolition waste
  • encouraging or requiring participation (by using such strategies as making programs convenient, enacting madates, and instituting pay-as-you-throw trash programs)
  • ofering service to multi-family dwellings
  • augmenting curbside collection with drop-off collection

Beverage Container Recycling

A unique coalition of industry, governmental agencies and environmental organizations released a study in January 2002 that, for the first time, provides baseline statistics on the costs, benefits and effectiveness of programs to recover discarded beverage containers for recycling. Understanding Beverage Container Recycling: A Value Chain Assessment is the final report of the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project, Stage One. Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling (BEAR), a project of Global Green USA, launched the initiative in 2001 as an effort to bring together long-standing opponents in the battle over different approaches to recycling in a fact-based approach to public policy making. The report shows the environmental advantages of recycling containers.

Composting (see our collection of Composting Rules)

Composting may be one of the most vital strategies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. It is an age-old process whose success has been well demonstrated in the U.S. and elsewhere. Composting facilities are far cheaper than landfills and incinerators. Adopting this approach would provide a rapid and cost-effective means to reduce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage in soils, and could have a substantial short-term impact on global warming.

Construction and Demolition (C&D) Waste Recycling

EPA estimates that in 2003, an estimated 170 million tons of debris was generated from building, renovation and demolition projects across the United States. Construction and demolition (C&D) debris includes bricks, concrete, masonry, soil, lumber, paving materials, shingles, glass, plastics, aluminum, steel, drywall, insulation, roofing materials, plumbing fixtures, electrical materials, siding, packaging and tree stumps. Through deconstruction and recovery, much of this material can be diverted from landfills and reused.

Communitiescan encourage the recycling of materials by making recovery part of the permitting process. A number of communities have passed local ordinances requiring recovery of C&D materials. In 1996, Portland Oregon passed an ordinance requiring job-site recycling on all construction projects with a value exceeding $25,000. In 1999, Atherton, California passed an ordinance that requires all construction, renovation and demolition projects to divert fifty percent of waste from landfills. Within the city, all buildings slated for demolition are made available for deconstruction. The city of Chicago has a mandatory 50 percent recycling rate for C&D as of 2007.

Electronic Waste Recycling – e-Waste

The proper handling and disposal of computer related equipment is critical to environmental protection. According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, hundreds of millions of computers will soon become obselete. These devices contain a selection of hazardous materials including lead, mercury and cadmium that must be handled with care to protect people and the environment. At this point, less than 10% of discarded computers are currently recycled.

As of April 2010, twenty one states have taken action to encourage e-Waste recycling. [click for a quick comparison of the state rules]

Zero Waste

The national recycling rate (including composting) is hovering around 30 percent. Hundreds of communities have surpassed this level and dozens report waste reduction levels above 50 percent. More can and will be done to decrease the amount of materials in our waste streams. Increasing numbers of cities, counties, states and private businesses are making commitments and goals towards "zero waste." The Zero Waste International Alliance provides a definition of the term,"Zero Waste is a goal that is both pragmatic and visionary, to guide people to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to reduce the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health."

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    Lisa Gonzalez

    Lisa Gonzalez researches and reports on telecommunications and municipal networks' impact on life at the local level. Lisa also writes for and produces ILSR's Broadband Bits podcast.

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