(hint: more is not better)
The world extracts 100 billion tons of materials from the earth every year,
only 8.6 percent of which is recycled. On average, a US citizen needs
about 1000 pounds of materials from the earth every week, which includes
commercial and industrial activity, fossil fuel use and household
consumption. And making and disposing of all this stuff creates 45 billion
pounds of waste of one kind or another every day—or about a third of the
world’s trash. (97 percent of this waste is generated by agriculture,
commerce and industry; 3 percent by households.) Read all about it in
The Average American. (It takes about a truckload of logs to build a typical
Every day in the USA, 300 million pounds of food—or about 40 percent of what we produce—goes to waste. This has a big environmental cost: Food production consumes 10 percent of the total US energy budget, uses half of US land, and sucks up 80 percent of freshwater we consume—including from deep aquifers that are fast being depleted.
These are just the things that hold the stuff, but we use a lot of them: 100 billion plastic bags
coffee servings), and 30 billion water bottles (less than 30 percent are recycled, and those that
are don't come back as new water bottles, but as playground equipment, etc). Option: using
a refillable mug is more efficient than paper or styrofoam after 20 or 127 uses, respectively.
Aluminum cans: The world produces 250 billion of them a year, requiring 3 percent of the
world’s electrical energy. In the US, we toss 45 billion of them into the trash annually, in
spite of a 95 percent energy savings gained by recycling aluminum.
Plastic bags - in the USA, we take 380 billion per year - that'a about 1000 per person. Thinking
about switching to cotton bags? You'd have to use one of these 7000 times to make for the
energy and water used and waste created by the bags it replaces (20,000 if it's organic cotton). A paper bag? 43 uses. Our recommendation: scavenge previously used bags from the trash or roadside or recycle containers at the grocery store; wheel your cart out to your car and off-load directly into containers there.
NCP had a fascinating conversation with Don Kelman of NH Kelman Recycling, a fourth generation business in Cohoes, NY. His company receives recyclables from all around the East Coast. The call was spurred by a question from a HS teacher as to "whether our recyclables really get recycled," given that China no longer takes our trash and our general skepticism about such things.
Mr. Kelman said that while it was much simpler when everything could just be sent to China, they are still finding buyers. The most profitable items are "red metals" such as brass and copper, and also aluminum; plastic is in the middle, and paper commands the lowest return.
It is a single stream, highly-automated process that separates various kinds of materials, with some hand-sorting to catch items that are mis-directed. (The person I spoke with at the local waste hauling company - the ones who send our recyclables from VA to NY - told me that they even hand-sort normal "trash" to pull out the recyclables before they dump it into the landfill. I had no idea.)
He also said that soup cans, etc. don't have to be cleaned before they are put into the recycling: "At the steel mill it will be heated to 3000 degrees - that should take care of the soup residue."
At this time, business is "upper middle" - there have been better and worse times in terms of the profitability.
"This business is not for the faint of heart," he noted.
Check with your local waste management company to see how they handle your material throughput.
The world makes 700 billion pounds of plastic annually, requiring 8 percent of the world’s petroleum
Half of this plastic is for one-time use; one-third of all plastic ends up in the ecosystem
(see How to Give up Plastic on the NCP Reading List)
Our society generates 34 million metric tons of hazardous waste annually—or 250 pounds per citizen, and 4.1 billion pounds of toxic emissions and other releases, including 400,000 tons of lead and lead compounds. And hormone disrupting chemicals may mean humans will need help reproducing by as soon as 2045.
400 million electronic devices are trashed every year in the United States. Recycling rates range from 10 (cell phones) to 18 percent (computers and televisions). This is in spite of the fact that one ton of recycled computers yields more gold than 17 tons of gold ore.
The US imports 20 billion items of clothing annually and the average person in the US discards 75 pounds of clothing per year - a 750 percent increase since 1960. Even items sent to resale shops often end up as rags—or are baled and send abroad to be sold, where they often undermine local textile industries. And producing clothes and shoes creates 8 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions. Here's a great guide to dressing more sustainably.
Less is More!
As consumers, our best response is to not buy so much or waste so much.
Set goals—avoid one-time use items
carry your own stainless steel mug (after 27 uses, it’s a better environmental choice than paper cups)
buy fewer, less fashionable, better made clothes
Contact local officials to call for recycling containers in all public places, and especially in parks and other “natural” areas. Encourage your store to give a discount to those bringing their own bags.
Scavenge—dumpsters at construction sites loads of usable items; liberate bottles and cans from trash cans you pass.
Nag legislators to pass bottle bills; campaign for pay-for-trash, recyclables-for-free pick up by local waste companies.
Work with your school, church or place of work to limit disposables, cut down on paper use, and set up recycling stations.
Compost food scraps and yard waste.
Become radically materialistic—
valuing every material item this earth provides and that passes through your hands: treat it like the treasure it is.