March 27, 2000
Contacts: Lance King
(703) 241-4927
America Wasting More, Even As Recycling Sets Records

Los Angeles - What goes into garbage cans is just the tip of a giant mountain of wasted resources piling up everyday, according to a new study released today. While Americans are setting new recycling records, product and packaging waste is increasing at the same time.

At a news conference at Los Angeles City Hall, a coalition of recycling experts was joined by Councilmembers Ruth Galanter and Mark Ridley-Thomas to announce that while Los Angeles has achieved a 47 percent reduction in the City's waste-stream, a lot more can be done to reduce the ever-growing mountain of trash produced nationwide.

"By practicing the 3 R's - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Americans kept 28 percent of municipal refuse out of landfills and incinerators in 1997, nearly triple the recycling rate in 1980," said Rick Best, president of the GrassRoots Recycling Network.

"The biggest benefits from keeping these materials out of landfills comes from reduced pollution, energy saved, reduced habitat destruction and sustainable jobs. Paper recycled by Americans since 1990 saved more than 3 billion trees, the equivalent of a forest 16 times the size of Yosemite National Park," said Best.

"But there is more to be done. America's garbage bill is $43.5 billion annually, more than the Gross National Product of Ireland or Egypt. The cost of wasting to future generations - in terms of pollution and loss of our precious resources - is many times greater. These are costs we can no longer take for granted," said Best.

The GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN) released Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 today. The report provides a comprehensive review of progress in recycling and environmental impacts of wasting resources, and presents a strategy for eliminating waste. It was researched and written by the Washington DC-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

"Los Angeles expects to meet California's goal of keeping 50 percent of waste out of landfills in 2000 through waste prevention, reuse and recycling," Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan said in a statement issued by his office today. "By the year 2020 we plan to reach a 70 percent waste reduction goal," said Riordan.

"It makes economic and environmental sense, saving millions of dollars for taxpayers, creating good paying jobs in the City of Los Angeles and assuring a healthy future for our children," Riordan said.

"Unfortunately, our recycling efforts nationally have been one step forward, one step back," Brenda Platt, lead author of the report and Director of Materials Recovery at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in an interview from her office.

"More than 9,300 communities provided curbside recycling by 1998, compared to a handful in the 1970s," Platt said.

"While recycling increased, wasting in landfills and incinerators is much greater and increased by 4.4 million tons between 1996 and 1997," Platt said. The analysis was based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other published sources.

"Waste generated from residential and commercial sources is just the tip of the 'wasteburg.' For every garbage can placed at the curb, the equivalent of another 71 garbage cans worth of waste is created in mining, logging, agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and the industrial processes converting raw materials into finished products and packaging," GRRN Network Coordinator Bill Sheehan said.

Dr. Sheehan, a biologist, leads the 4-year-old national nonprofit organization based in Athens, Georgia. GRRN's report and programs are funded by the Turner Foundation, the Merck Family Fund, The Florence and John Schumann Foundation, and individual gifts.

"One of the key findings of our research is that the benefits of recycling are also far greater than previously thought and go far beyond keeping materials from landfill disposal or incineration," Dr. Neil Seldman, co-author of the report and president of the ILSR, said from Washington DC. Seldman is a co-founder of GRRN and a member of its board of directors.

Key benefits of recycling identified in the report include:
  • Reducing greenhouse gases. Reaching a 35 percent recycling rate and reducing wasting to 1990 levels would eliminate 11.4 million metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE). This is equivalent to taking nearly 7 million cars off the road.
  • Reducing reliance on virgin resources protects habitats and eliminates pollution from extracting resources, processing and manufacturing. Producing aluminum from bauxite is highly energy intensive and generates a ton of caustic waste for every ton of bauxite mined. Recovering the more than 45 billion aluminum cans wasted in 1998 in the U.S. would conserve enough energy to supply the electricity needed by the city of Atlanta for two years.
  • Creating sustainable jobs and businesses. A survey by ten northeastern states found that industries manufacturing with recycled materials employ 103,413 people in the region. North Carolina recycling industries employ over 8,700 people. California is expected to create 45,000 recycling jobs when it reaches its 50 percent waste reduction and recycling goal.
Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 identifies several factors adversely affecting recycling and waste reduction, including:

  • Corporations backing away from commitments to use recycled materials in products and packaging.
  • Subsidies for virgin resource extraction and waste disposal which put recycling at a competitive disadvantage, including $2.6 billion annually in federal taxpayer subsidies and billions more spent by local governments supporting landfills and incinerators.
  • Products and packaging are often made with little regard for recycling and waste prevention. For example, new plastic beverage containers are made with colored resins or labels and caps making recycling technically more difficult and expensive.
Los Angeles City Council Member Ruth Galanter said "Local governments and taxpayers are being confronted with wasteful new packaging which costs more to recycle. The trend toward plastics is a real problem because the cost of collecting and recycling the containers is often more than what companies pay us for the plastic, and our taxpayers end up with the bill."

"I am introducing a resolution tomorrow calling on Coca-Cola to take back its plastic bottles and use them to make new bottles. Coke and other beverage companies that fail to use significant amounts of recycled plastic in their bottles, burden local government and taxpayers who pay for litter clean-up, landfill disposal or subsidize the cost of recycling their bottles," Galanter said.

Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 documents that many businesses and communities are setting records in recycling and waste reduction. "Fifteen years ago, 25 percent recycling was thought to be the limit or to reach higher would mean astronomical costs. Today we know otherwise. Hundreds of businesses and communities have cut their waste in half and saved money," said ILSR's Platt.

"Fetzer Vineyards is one California business that has cut its waste by more than 80 percent," she said.

GRRN lays out a new approach based upon eliminating rather than managing waste. "Zero waste is our goal. Cutting edge businesses and communities are already pursuing innovative 'zero waste' strategies in the United States and half way around the world in Australia and New Zealand," said Bill Sheehan.

"We have only scratched the surface of recycling's potential in the United States. Every day another city achieves cost effective diversion rates well above the national average and new markets, program and processing strategies demonstrate success," Joan Edwards said at the Los Angeles news conference. Edwards, a private consultant, is the former director of recycling programs for the cities of Los Angeles and New York. GRRN's report shows that keys to successful waste reduction and recycling are setting public policy goals, backed by mandates or incentives like beverage container deposits, and creating incentives for market-based solutions.

"The heart of the zero waste strategy is based on the old adage that 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,'" said Sheehan.

The GrassRoots Recycling Network is a North American network of recycling and community-based activists who advocate policies and practices to achieve zero waste, to end corporate welfare for waste, and to create sustainable jobs from discards. GRRN was founded in 1995 by members of the Sierra Club Solid Waste Committee, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the California Resource Recovery Association.

Copies of Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 are available for $25.00 postpaid. Portions of the report are posted on the Internet at:


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