By George Stubbs
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released its latest annual report on the state of municipal solid waste (MSW) management and recycling in the United States, and the results present some cause for concern about the progress we are making in trying to establish a more circular economy—that is, an economy in which wastes increasingly supplant virgin materials in the supply of raw materials for products.
A welcome development is a change of emphasis in the MSW report. Whereas past MSW management updates were released with neutral, soporific titles like Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: Facts and Figures, the latest report is titled Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013, reflecting the agency’s emphasis on the importance of what it is calling “sustainable materials management” (SMM).
As EPA says in the introduction to the report, the new name is meant to suggest that “EPA is thinking beyond waste.” SMM refers to “the use and reuse of materials in the most productive and sustainable way across the entire life cycle,” the agency says. “SMM conserves resources, reduces waste, slows climate change, and minimizes the environmental impacts of the materials we use.” A lot of the data in the report focuses on how materials are being reused, rather than simply providing a breakdown of what’s going to landfills and incinerators and what percentage of overall waste is being recycled.
EPA is hoping to lead the way in changing how we look at the management of materials and resources. Are we following? The facts and figures cited in the report, which presents data on MSW management and recycling in the United States for the year 2013, suggests some pause in the progress we had made in reducing waste and diverting materials from landfills and incinerators in previous years.
According to the report, 254 million tons of MSW were generated in the United States in 2013—3 million more tons than were generated in 2012. That difference may suggest continued growth in the economy, and our purchase of more stuff as we improve our economic lot. Perhaps the increase in MSW generation could have been higher still if many of us hadn’t changed our consumption patterns and recycling practices for the better in recent years. But the increase suggests that we’re still short of “decoupling” economic growth from resource consumption, even though there are signs, as EPA acknowledges, of some piecemeal forms of decoupling.
On a per capita basis, we increased our MSW generation to 4.40 pounds per person per day in 2013, up 1% over 2012. Again, little sign of any decoupling.
During 2013, about 87 million tons of MSW were recycled or composted, with 65 million tons recycled and the rest consisting of food waste and yard trimmings recovered for composting. That 22 million tons is 1 million more tons than the food waste and yard trimmings composted in 2012. So there’s a bit of progress there (the rate of consumer electronics being diverted from landfills is increasing as well). However, the overall recovery rate for recycling (including composting) was 34.3% in 2013, slightly lower than the 34.5% in 2012. We seem to have hit a ceiling.
Why? A recent article in the Washington Post has some suggestions. The factors are complex, but generally revolve around two things. First, a fall in commodity prices has led to a slackening of demand for recyclables, thus driving down margins for commercial recyclers.
Second, the move to make things as easy as possible for households has led to amenities such single-stream recycling at a time when people are still confused about what they can or cannot put in their bins. Apparently, that’s leading people to throw a lot into their bins that’s actually garbage—and commercial waste management companies are spending a lot of time and money in removing such materials (and sorting the recyclables) at their materials recovery facilities (MRFs). That’s placed more pressure on margins, to the point where, as the Washington Post article says, more than 2,000 municipalities around the country are paying to dispose of their recyclables rather than making money off the operation—as it was designed to be.
Making recycling easy for households is a top priority. But educating the community about what can and can’t be recycled has to be right up there as well. There’s no shortage of innovators and entrepreneurs out there who are finding clever and economical ways to reuse materials that the rest of us would discard. It’s a matter of helping the average household and our municipalities keep up with the market and understand what it’s capable of doing.
Visitors to the Melrose Recycling Committee website should take a look at the Recyclopedia page to find out more about what they can and can’t recycle, and what their recycling options are.