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Last modified: March 23, 2019

As Seen in the May June 2002 Earthday Resources As seen in Enough!
published by the Center for a New American Dream

Spring 2003
Beyond Recycling: The Future of Waste
by Helen Spiegelman

A decade ago we congratulated our cities for introducing curbside recycling. We saw this as an important step in the right direction: instead of throwing things away, our cities now treated waste as a resource. Recycling became a civic responsibility that Americans came to practice more faithfully than voting. And we continue to press our elected officials to take further steps, like collecting more plastics.

The broad popularity of municipal recycling is often taken as a measure of our success in sustainably redirecting our waste. But conscientious citizens need to grapple with some troubling facts. While it is still better to recycle than to throw everything in the trash, we have put our faith in a flawed system and need to be conscientious as we push for better alternatives.

How Recycling Has Failed
The numbers show that our community recycling programs are failing to effectively deal with our waste. Many of the products that we think are "recycled" by our community programs are actually "downcycled." Newspapers are turned into low-value products like cattle bedding and insulation material. Recycled glass is crushed and used in construction as a gravel substitute (a complete write-off on the energy that was invested to turn gravel into glass in the first place). Plastic containers come back as textiles or throw-away garbage bags - if they come back at all.

Even when materials are recycled back into the same product (newspapers into newspapers, for instance) there is a net environmental cost. Thermodynamically, there is no such thing as recycling. In fact, there are often more elegant and environmentally efficient ways of meeting our needs which are ignored in favor of recycling.

Recycling has not reduced waste either. Even after the enormous exertions of America's cities and towns to recycle bottles, cans, newspapers and other consumer products, seventy percent of the products we buy are still going to landfills and incinerators. The total quantity of throwaway products and packaging going to America's landfills was actually larger in 2000 than in 1990 (121.3 million tons, compared to 117.5).

It's not all bad news. But to understand the problem and what we can do about it, it helps to know what's actually in our trash, and what our waste system was meant to handle.

What Can We Do?
Many things!

On a personal level, recycling is still preferable to throwing paper and other materials in the trash. But there are many actions we can take that are more environmentally sound.

  • Don’t buy things that don’t enhance your life.
  • Creatively reuse items you no longer need. The Tightwad Gazette book series by Amy Dacyczyn has many great ideas to reuse everyday items.
  • Buy from thrift stores and yard sales and borrow from libraries instead of buying new.
  • Choose products with less packaging. Supermarket bulk bins, for example, save on packaging and money.
  • Instead of giving "things" as gifts, give consumables (such as food, soap or candles) and gifts of time (like massages or babysitting services), or "re-gift" nice items of your own that you no longer want.
  • Filter (or simply drink) tap water instead of buying bottled or canned beverages.

On a community level, forming a Zero Waste Task Force or other community action group can encourage local officials to regulate out-of-control product waste. Tax dollars spent on waste management can be diverted to other community services, such as schools, parks, libraries and policing.

  • Local governments can initiate mandatory or voluntary manufacturer take-back programs.
  • Local authorities can prohibit the disposal of toxic or easily recycled materials and establish landfill surcharges or excise taxes to raise the price of waste disposal to reflect true environmental costs.
  • Municipalities and other organizations can require that their offices purchase environmentally preferable products, including products with take-back programs.

Many additional resources, including information on community organizing, are available through the GrassRoots Recycling Network at

What We're Throwing Away
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) separates municipal waste into two basic categories: product-related wastes and non-product wastes. Product-related wastes include all the durable goods we use (appliances, furniture, books - anything that lasts over five years), non-durable goods (newspapers, disposable diapers - anything that lasts less than five years), and packaging. The non-product waste materials include food scraps (about 11 percent of our total trash pile), yard trimmings (another 12 percent) and a small amount of miscellaneous inorganic waste (1.5 percent).

Unlike product-related wastes, the quantity of non-product wastes has not increased in the past ten years. In fact, it has declined by 1.6 million tons, despite a U.S. population increase of 13 percent. The EPA attributes this decline to the spread of backyard composting and to "grass-cycling" (leaving clippings on the lawn rather than bagging them up for collection). In this way, citizens reduce their waste “at source.” Many cities and towns no longer allow residents to put yard waste out with the trash. In fact, many municipalities have begun providing recycling services specifically for yard waste.

Yard waste recycling is the real recycling success story of the 1990s. The amount of yard waste recovered for composting has grown nearly four-fold in the United States since 1990, from 4.2 million tons to 15.8 million tons. Today, 57 percent of the yard waste generated in America's cities and towns is recycled (compared to a 30 percent recycling rate for products and packaging).

Diverting yard waste from landfills creates global benefits. Organic materials in landfills are the largest manmade source of the greenhouse gas methane, which is 21 times more potent a contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide, the by-product of composting.

The generation of product-related wastes, however, has increased significantly during the curbside recycling era, at a rate faster than population growth. According to the EPA, the total quantity of products and packaging generated as waste in the United States increased nearly 20 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 146.5 million tons to 174.7 million tons.

Why is it that product wastes continue to grow out of control while our non-product wastes decline?

The Evolution of the Disposable Society
It helps to put municipal waste in perspective. At the turn of the 20th century, the rapid industrialization of the previous century led to urban squalor. People were crowded together in tenements, throwing their garbage into the streets. But a dedicated urban reform movement helped to establish municipal sanitation departments. Uniformed crews began to provide convenient collection and disposal of municipal waste. The system was overseen by municipal engineers who convinced local elected officials to invest in modern waste disposal technologies such as "sanitary" landfills, waste-to-energy combustion facilities and recycling plants.

As time went by, the waste stream changed. In 1905 municipal waste consisted of household ashes from cooking and heating (75 percent), kitchen scraps (16 percent) and miscellaneous rubbish (7 percent). A century later, the ashes were gone, but the "miscellaneous rubbish" (today's consumer products and packaging) had swelled to take their place.

It only seems sensible, when you think about it, that there would be such explosive growth in throwaway products and packaging. Municipal waste management is provided as a public service, perceived by citizens as a free resource. There is no incentive to economize on waste either at the household level or, more importantly, in the marketplace.

Producers of consumer products never thought twice about designing their products to be thrown away. It started with the convenient "no deposit no return" pop can which consumers were urged to toss in the trash rather than return to the store to be refilled. And it continues today with a new generation of throwaways: consumer electronics. The personal computer is the pop can of the cyber age, a disposable container for quickly obsolescing information technology.

Computer makers have shipped hundreds of millions of units without ever a thought of what would happen to them when the newer, better, faster version became available. And it is local cities and towns that are expected to bear the brunt of the problem. These computers are "municipal waste," the responsibility of local governments, to be managed in a system that was designed a century ago for ashes and food scraps.

The Future of Waste
So what is the alternative? At the same time that North American cities and towns were beginning to budget for recycling, there was a quiet policy revolution underway in Europe and the Canadian province of British Colombia. There, governments and a handful of citizens were questioning the century-old assumption that local communities should clean up after the Disposable Society.

A new waste policy known as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has led to the adoption of laws in many parts of the world that require any company that sells a consumer product to provide "cradle-to-cradle" take-back service to its consumers. In British Columbia these laws are being introduced one product category at a time. First the producers of paint were called to the table and required to set up a program to take back and recycle their products from consumers. Then the producers of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and paint thinners. Then beverage producers. Most recently the producers of packaged motor oil and oil filters. Soon it will be tires and batteries. Then British Columbia will likely follow Europe's example and require EPR for electronic products.

Cities and towns in British Columbia are now able to ban these products from their waste management programs, reminding citizens to look to the producer for the waste solutions. People living in British Columbia imagine a day when cities and towns will devote their resources to developing state-of-the-art composting and sewage treatment systems - not to mention libraries, parks and schools - while recycling of consumer products and packaging will be a thriving commercial activity. It will be carried out in what some like to call "discard malls." It will be a profitable activity because products will be designed for recycling and reuse, rather than for the landfill.

This is the New American Dream - that the consumer products industry can eliminate waste by effectively managing its resources. It will take conscientious citizens to send this message to our civic leaders. While we must currently make do with recycling, it is only one small part of waste management and we can do much better. As long as communities continue to pick up after producers of disposable products, producers will never learn how to pick up after themselves.

Helen Spiegelman is Vice President of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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