Waste Prevention, Recycling, and Management

EM – March 2021: This month, EM examines important, recent developments in waste prevention and management. 
by David H. Minott

Five years ago, we began dedicating the March issue of EM each year as an entirely waste-themed issue to help increase the magazine's content in the area of waste prevention and management. It has been our custom with these waste-themed issues to preface the topic with a peek back into the history of waste management. Below, we briefly explore the evolution of waste management in the United States since 1960, based largely on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data.1

The waste generation rate per capita in the United States was just 2.7 lb. per person in 1960. It then rose to 3.7 lbs. by 1980, and to 4.8 lbs. by 2005. Interestingly, since the early 2000s, waste generation per capita has remained steady, rather than continuing to increase. While waste generation increases paralleled the growth in consumer spending from 1960 to 2005, the waste generation rate has not increased since then, despite consumer spending continuing rise. This is good news. The leveling off of our waste generation rate could be due, in part, to successful waste-reduction practices, such as reduced packaging, but also may reflect societal changes such as migrating from paper-based to electronic communication.

Recycling and composting rates nationally increased from only 6% of waste generated in 1960 to 29% in 2000. After peaking at 35% in 2017, the recycling rate has since de-creased to 32%. The recycling rate nationally in the United States has been basically stagnant through the 2000s, stuck at roughly 30–35%. Further increasing the recycling rate going forward is a challenge that will require increased certainty in recycling markets, as well as improvements in recycling economics, education, regulations, and infrastructure. Several governments and private-sector players are at work on this.

Waste-to-energy (waste combustion for energy recovery, or WTE) increased from 0% in 1960 to 14% of waste generated in 1990 and has remained steady since. The primary reasons for non-growth of WTE in the United States are its high cost for electric generation versus modern conventional power plants and NIMBY attitudes (“Not in My Back Yard”) in major urban areas, where WTE plants would make the most sense.

Landfilling of waste has decreased from 94% of waste generated in 1960 to around 50% today. The major reduction is due to successful diversion of waste to recycling, composting, and waste-to-energy. Importantly, “landfilling” in 1960 was not really that, but rather, open dumps that were often open-burned. By contrast, modern landfills are subject to ever-evolving practices to minimize safety hazards, protect groundwater, and reuse landfill gas beneficially as fuel, while minimizing landfill gas emissions to the air.

In addition to the well-established methods noted above for waste prevention and management, anaerobic digestion is a rapidly evolving technique for beneficial use of food waste, as well as other organic wastes that are not municipal wastes such as animal manure and sewage sludge. Digestion of such organic wastes produces biogas, a renewable fuel product. Production of biogas fuel via digestion of organic wastes is the subject of several recent and upcoming EM articles.

In summary, there has been tremendous progress since 1960 in leveling the waste generation rate; increasing recycling, composting, and the beneficial use of waste for energy recovery; and improving the environmental profile of landfills. Yet important challenges remain as we seek to further reduce waste generation, increase recycling and reuse of waste materials, and minimize waste disposal. If the historical gains in waste management since 1960 are a harbinger, we can be optimistic that the coming decades will see further advances that bring us ever closer to achieving the worthy, aspirational goal of “zero waste.”

Continue reading the full March 2021 issue of EM.


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