Industrial waste accounts for a large percentage (71%) of any waste total, but more than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection. Unregulated dumpsites for some four billion people holds about 40% of the waste worldwide. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the issues only affecting America.
Historically speaking, these issues will only continue to get worse if they’re not addressed in a timely manner.
Perhaps the straight-up scariest image is a recent National Geographic suggestion: imagine 15 grocery bags of plastic trash on every single yard of shoreline in the world. That mind-boggling picture represents the volume of plastic trash that ended up in the world’s oceans in just one year.
All baseline numbers show the US is the king of trash, producing a world-leading 250 million tons a year. That averages out to roughly 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day.
The fact that urbanized and industrialized countries produce more trash is a given. The fact that the United Nations Environment Program predicted the amount of waste will probably double in lower-income African and Asian cities as a result of population growth, urbanization, and rising consumption, is a sobering reality.
The threat of waste to the environment seems obvious; health and safety concerns are huge, as are financial and social considerations. Cities in developing countries spend 20% to 50% of their budgets dealing with waste management, but public waste systems can’t keep pace with rapid urban expansion.
When waste is not collected, the frequency of illness (such as diarrhea) doubles, and acute respiratory infection – linked to the burning of waste – is six times higher.
Appropriate systems to deal with hazardous and special wastes have not been developed, even though they need to be a high priority. Even the less fortunate who forage through dumps expose themselves to deadly hazards like lead, mercury, and infectious matter that can ;ead to further health complications.
In the US, about $200 billion a year is spent on solid waste management and lost energy resources from disposing of trash. Even as science and technology has advanced, effective trash cleanup continues to be a lingering issue.
China and Its Global Recycling Role
Since 1992, China and Hong Kong have imported 72% of all plastic waste in the world, and 45% of scrap materials overall.
During their ten-month “Green Fence” program in 2011, China made it known that the world had to start shipping better trash by thoroughly searching an incredible 70% of containers entering the country.
China’s "National Sword" program ran for five years after that.
When China informed the World Trade Organization in July of 2017 that more restrictive contamination standards – including phasing in the banning of 32 types of scrap metals from 2019 to 2020 – were coming, the scrap recycling world heard what the world’s biggest buyer of scrap was saying.
"About 111 million metric tons of plastic waste is going to be displaced because of the import ban through 2030, so we're going to have to develop more robust recycling programs domestically, and rethink the use and design of plastic products if we want to deal with this waste responsibly," said Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor at UGA’s College of Engineering.
While the number of containers unqualified for import to China is low (.04%), that still translates to 22,000 containers a day. American recyclers are looking at Vietnam and Thailand, but there’s no replacement for the level of what China has been willing to take in for over 25 years.
What the world faces is a cascade effect, with a focus on the lack of information regarding the benefits of clean trash reduction. There is no infrastructure anywhere else that can handle as significant an amount of rejected waste as Dr. Jambeck’s prediction of 111 million metric tons of plastic going backwards into the recycling system.
‘Contamination’ is not radioactive waste, and could be as common as pizza boxes. US recyclers saw what was coming with “Green Fence,” but when operations were expanding in Asia, it didn’t seem to matter as much.
In 2016, the US recycled 66 million tons of material, one-third of which it sold overseas – half of that to China. The US exported $5.6 billion in scrap commodities to China in 2016, plus $1.9 billion in scrap paper, and just under $500 million in plastics.
A Snapshot Look at the Effects of Trash Regulation
While it can sometimes be difficult to imagine the trickle-down effects of certain regulations, a quick glance at two affected businesses makes it easy to see the detrimental effects of trash regulation:
E.L. Harvey & SonsThis company (since 1911) could be a poster child for paper recyclers, because the system of bringing in materials, processing them, and moving it out quick is no longer happening for Ben Harvey’s company.
The bales take up a lot of room in Harvey’s parking lot: 150-200 tractor trailer loads of paper, 12’ high, 2,000 lbs. per bale. As Harvey says, “If we can’t move it, and we can’t keep it indefinitely, we might have to stop bringing material in. That impacts (downstream) recycling programs all over the country.”
Casella RecyclingThey have been in the paper-corrugated container industry since 1977, and process about 800,000 tons/year. They built Vermont’s first recycling facility by viewing waste management as a set of services – collection, recycling, transfer, and disposal. They seem to have anticipated opportunities around resource renewal as well.
CEO John Casella indicated that getting his operation to a 1-2% standard increased labor costs by about 20-30%. He says they can add people, slow down lines, even break bales and re-run them, but when China now wants .3-.5% fiber contamination, he’s in real trouble.
What is Trash? A Break Down of the Great Garbage Dispute
For many people, trash and garbage is one and the same. The only problem with that mindset: it’s not. Take a quick look at a breakdown of what is considered trash.
Industrial trash/wastePetrochemicals and pharmaceuticals; the cement, textile, and pulp-paper industries; food and beverage manufacturers, tobacco, and health products all produce a significant amount of waste. This accounts for about 71% of worldwide waste.
Municipal and domestic solid wasteCombines commercial and residential waste, primarily food. Landfills are a controlled way of handling waste materials so that the quality of groundwater and soil is preserved.
How to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle Better
We can all do a better job of helping the planet in terms of proper waste management and recycling. Although it is not an overnight fix, taking steps to properly remove waste materials can go a long way to ensuring a better planet through recycling.
- Incineration reduces the bulk of materials, but toxic metals are not eliminated, just reduced to a size that gets spread all over. By weight, 80% of waste is organic. It often doesn’t decompose because there’s no air circulation in most landfills.
- Recycling and material recovery through advanced technology to help in sorting waste has arrived, with many developed countries using automated robots. The recovered materials are sold, while the rest is reprocessed to make new products.
- Problem materials like glass and plastic bags are in need of better collection processes as an overall industry concern. Collection bins in front of most stores have helped make a communal change, because plastic bags can often get stuck in machines when mixed with other products. The quality of glass from deposits programs is also much higher.
Tech Trash – You Can Make a Difference
The US trashes 100 million pieces of computer equipment every year. In a lot of states, disposal of electronic elements like computer equipment and phones is illegal.
- If you’ve kept an android-type phone for five years, or only chucked a laptop unit because you got a dark screen when you fired it up one day, give yourself a pat on the back. Using equipment longer is as good a move as any on this front.
- Updating older equipment – it’s often just a total reinstallation that’s required – like monitors, keyboards, phones, and cables, or buying additional components vs. new purchases helps to keep equipment out of landfills.
- Repairing equipment doesn’t thrill a lot of people, but there’s a ‘right to repair’ law that stopped the inconvenience and expense of having to return everything to manufacturers. Repairs became valid when the dollar difference between repair or replacement got larger.
- Selling old equipment (you won’t get much, check www.Gadgetvalue.com), and donating it to schools or non-profits may not be that easy. Volunteers man many office roles at non-profits, so outdated software can be a stumbling block. Search online for ‘wiping clean’ instructions, and always take give-away computers down to factory settings.
- Send it back. Some manufacturers are okay with that. ‘Material recovery’ is recycling’s younger brother, and Apple managed to get a literal ton of gold out of returned units, worth about $40 million.
- Recycle it. Many states have EPA sites listed where ancient, boxy monitors must be brought. Leaving old equipment next to the complex dumpster is begging for trouble.
What Are the Solutions for Waste?
While even the best-run landfills can stress the environment, many industry experts blame what seems like Americans lack of urgency about the waste crisis on the idea that people simply aren’t seeing it.
“People think because they put waste at the curb and it goes away, maybe it’s not a problem,” said Mark Dancy, president of WasteZero, one of the nation’s largest waste reduction companies. Most utilities, such as gas, water and electricity, are charged depending on how much is used. It works differently for waste, with most cities and towns charging a flat fee for trash service, or including it in property taxes.
As a result, most Americans pay little attention to the amount of waste they are creating and discarding. Recycling programs in the United States have been operating as full force law for many years, and some experts believe the answer to reducing waste lies in charging for its disposal by weight or other metrics.
Used in more than 800 cities and counties across the country, WasteZero promotes a bag-based, ‘pay-as-you-throw’ program that charges residents a set fee in cash for each bag they dispose of at a drop-off location.
According to WasteZero’s statistics, the program has resulted in an average waste reduction of 44%, and recycling rates often spike upwards by 50-60%. “When you charge for something, people use less of it, and in this case it’s less trash,” Dancy said.
The world generates at least 3.5 million tons of plastic and other solid waste a day, according to World Bank researchers.
Since 2000, the World Bank has contributed about $4.5 billion to support 329 solid waste programs around the world. They include projects such as reuse and recycling, basic trash collection and disposal, and initiatives aimed at changing habits related to waste.
“Many people think it is just about getting an incinerator and it’s all fixed,” said Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, senior director for the World Bank's Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice. “This is part of the solution, but technical and engineering solutions are not a silver bullet.”
Single-use packaging is a product group that has exploded around the world, and it’s a situation that requires redesign. Two million metric tons (a metric ton is 1,000 kilos or 2,205 pounds) were produced in 1950, compared to 322 million metric tons in 2015.
According to The Royal Statistical Society, 90.5% of plastic waste is never recycled. The math regarding 90.5% of 322 million metric tons would seem to require very real action in another direction in order to better improve the environment.
Shipping most waste overseas for so long, US mills haven’t developed, and it takes four to six years to build a recycling center with the sort of capacity an operation like Casella Recycling (800,000 tons) would require.
The story of a Lubbock recycling center reclamation project speaks to an obvious need. It originally caught fire in 2002 and sat smoldering for another month. When it caught fire again in 2009, it was shut down and abandoned for the past decade.
The $11.7 million needed to put it back in service could be paid for by tipping fees already collected, but private cleanup would still take 36 months. This is the third legislative session for efforts to fix the situation, which features mounds of concrete, tires, and shingles.
Even though there’s an obvious need and financial resources are available, that’s still a lot of nothing happening.
Big Answers to Big Questions on Recycling
The easiest solution to the world waste problem is to better educate the masses on the proper procedure to recycling. So many daily items that get tossed in the trash could easily be recycled and turned into usable resources. Take a look at some of the advantages of recycling properly:
- How to Recycle
An essential point of reading about recycling should include learning things you can change to help improve the environment.
Americans recycled almost 67% of the paper they used in 2015. Rinsing bottles and cans can also be positive and productive for recycling.
There are lots of dry-cell batteries used across a variety of electronics, and we’re all well aware (or at least should be) that dead ones don’t just go in the garbage. Look for in-store recycling bins or community collection events to dispose of these batteries.
- Alkaline and carbon zinc (9-volt, D, C, AA, AAA)
- Mercuric-oxide (button, some cylindrical and rectangular)
- Silver-oxide and zinc-air (button)
- Lithium (9-volt, C, AA, coin, button, rechargeable) batteries.
Learn what the symbols mean on the bottom of plastic bottles and containers. It makes a difference whether a container can be accepted by your local recycling program.
Glass food and beverage containers can be recycled over and over.
Never dump used motor oil down any drains. It takes 42 gallons of crude oil to produce 2.5 quarts of new oil, but only one gallon of used to produce the same amount.
Products like paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides contain potentially hazardous ingredients. They require special care when being disposed of. HHW (household hazardous waste) may be dangerous to people and it certainly doesn’t make for a better environment if poured down the drain, or thrown out with regular trash.
Tire piles are homes for rodents and insects, and they can easily catch fire. Garages have to accept and recycle used tires when new ones are installed.
- Why You Should Recycle
Here are a few reasons to help towards a better environment, and you don’t need to be a ‘tree-hugger’ or environmental activist to recycle.
It takes twice as much energy to burn plastic as it does to recycle it, and 64% more energy to make paper than it does to recycle and reuse it.
For every ton of paper that is recycled, 17 whole trees are saved. Companies that use recycled aluminum save 95% of the energy necessary for the production of new aluminum products, compared to companies that use raw materials.
The garbage in landfills can also affect local groundwater. Landfills that pile up with large amounts of trash have a higher chance of leaking hazardous materials that may find their way into your drinking water.
Americans produce about 1600 pounds of waste each year. On average, as much as 1100 pounds of that waste could be recycled each year per person. That’s over half a ton for one person, and a family of four could do two tons of something for a better environment by consistent, simple acts of recycling.
- What Can Be Recycled
A common mistake is assuming something can be recycled. Sometimes recycling garbage that can’t be recycled ends up doing more harm than good. Take a look at some items that can be recycled:
- Don’t mix plastic bags in with the rest of your recycled items, they jam up recycling machines. The bins in front of most grocery stores accept plastic bags, and you’re going there at some point.
- Recycle all glass, cans, and paper. Tin, aluminum, and steel cans are all good.
- Rigid plastics can be any plastic bottles or containers found in your kitchen and can be recycled.
- Cereal and snack cardboard boxes, phonebooks, magazines, and mail are all legitimate. So are office paper, newspaper, and brown cardboard.
- Glass is glass. Beer bottles, food containers or jars, wine and liquor bottles.
- The Benefits of Recycling
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the benefits of recycling. When proper procedures are in place, the results are impossible to ignore and show just how important it is to recycle. If we continue on the current path, our planet will not be able to sustain the amount of waste we produce for much longer.
Less waste results in less complications in terms of contamination. With less garbage filling the streets, landfills, and dumps, we can quickly discover just how detrimental trash overload can be to the environment, and our health.
Aluminum cans are the most valuable item you put curbside. They help fund most of the curbside collection, and it is the only material that covers the cost of collection and reprocessing for itself.
Zero Waste and a Look at the Future of Recycling
Kathryn Kellogg, modern minimalist, who put two years of non-recyclable waste into a Mason jar is one of several zero-waste bloggers who share encouragement and practical tips about the details of efforts for a better environment. In Kathryn’s case, that’s about 300,000 monthly readers!
“Zero waste is really trying to minimize, to make better choices. Do the best you can, buy less. It’s not a radical act to clean a kitchen spill with a cloth instead of a paper towel,” shared Kellogg.
“We also saved about $5,000 a year by purchasing fresh food instead of packaged, buying in bulk, and making our own products like cleaners and deodorant,” says Kellogg, who lives with her husband in a small house in Vallejo, California.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Dutch netting operation meant to capture ocean plastic, is a highlight of some steps that have been initiated to promote better cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup is a passive system that involves a series of connected pipe sections – 2,000-feet worth – of floating sections that forms a giant horseshoe on the surface.
Below the boom hangs a nine-foot skirt that corrals tiny pieces of plastic trash that float in the water. The action of the currents and waves is meant to push trash into the system’s center, while micro-plastic pieces get captured by the hanging barrier.
Although the system broke in December, several weeks of analysis determined that material fatigue caused a piece of three-inch thick, high-density polyethylene pipe to crack and break.
That they got it on site, seem to understand what happened, and are working it out is encouraging. The organization isn’t discouraged about the quick stop for a broken pipe, posting positively that discovering and resolving issues is an essential part of achieving success.
Given the disgusting size of the Great Pacific Plastic Patch, the world should hope that their bigger, better second ship will eventually become a fleet that becomes a larger, stronger asset for a better environment over the next couple years.
This content has been brought to you by the team over at cbdMD, a supporter of clean environment initiatives. As a leader in premium hemp-derived CBD products, we support the cleanup of our planet while working to find a more natural solution to the global garbage epidemic.
With the support of everyone, we have the power to positively impact our planet – one piece of trash at a time.
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