In the last 15 years, recycling has come of age. The number of curbside recycling programs has climbed to 9,349 and the national recycling rate for municipal discards has reached 28%. At the local level, many communities are setting new records, surpassing 50%, and even 60% waste diversion levels.
Public policies in the 1980s and 1990s spurred recycling around the country. Mandatory recycling requirements, pay-as-you-throw trash fees, buy recycled campaigns, minimum recycled-content legislation, grant programs, and recycling market development zones have encouraged both the supply and demand for recyclable materials and products.
Private sector initiatives have been remarkable too. Many businesses reduced their waste and redesigned their products and packaging with materials efficiency and cost cutting in mind. Some even adopted zero waste goals. The technology available to utilize recyclable materials has never been better.
However, the pendulum is now swinging backward and the movement forward in recycling appears to have stalled. Some states are considering rescinding recycling goals and policies. Recycling levels have plateaued in some areas and for some materials. A few cities have opted to cut back their recycling budgets. Some industries have not followed through on commitments to create more markets for the growing supply of recyclable materials. Other industries have increased their waste output. For example, advances in computer and television technology will dump millions of obsolete electronics with hazardous components into the municipal solid waste stream.
The current infrastructure in which taxpayers and local government are responsible for waste management has encouraged the proliferation of throw-away products and packaging. Waste handling and disposal is an unfunded mandate on taxpayers and local governments, costing them billions of dollars each year. To further recycling and waste diversion, we need to address the demand side of the picture more (such as manufacturers using more recycled content and redesigning products), rather than simply the supply side (collecting materials).
Manufactured goods make up 76% by weight of municipal materials discarded. Thus, manufacturers have a special duty to lessen the burden of municipal discards on local government and taxpayers by accepting responsibility for their products and packaging. Indeed, manufacturers are best positioned to alter the way products are designed, manufactured, delivered, reused, and recycled throughout their lifecycle.