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The Ways We Waste: The Long Road to Sustainable Waste Management
Over the course of the 20th century, the United States saw an economic boom unlike any other in its history. The middle class flourished, businesses prospered, and a whole slew of industries were created to satisfy the new demand for consumer goods. But the rising tide of the consumer market brought with it a staggering increase in the amount of trash pouring into the nation's landfills. In 1960, the United States was already producing 88.1 million tons of municipal solid waste per year. By the year 2010, the country was creating more than 250 million tons of trash per year, an increase of 283 percent.
A Messy Situation
The rapid increase in garbage production over the last 50 years was left relatively unchecked by the federal government. Between those years, Congress passed just a handful of laws aimed at reining in the country's wasteful tendencies. The most significant of these laws were the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. These laws established national goals for resource recovery and waste reduction, in addition to banning the open dumping of municipal solid waste (MSW), and created federal standards for the safe disposal of hazardous wastes.
Though these laws vastly improved the safety of transporting and storing both MSW and hazardous materials, they did not establish a national policy for reducing waste. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act did stipulate that the states should develop solid waste programs that include source reduction and recycling, but subsequent interpretations of the bill determined that such plans were voluntary, not mandatory. Therefore, the problem of what to do with the country's waste would ultimately be left up to individual state and local governments to solve, resulting in the wide variety of waste management systems we see today.
From State to State
One of the first states to enact its own waste reduction policies was Oregon, which created the first "bottle bill" in 1971 in an effort to combat the growing amount of litter on its beaches. The law established a subsidy to be paid to consumers who recycled their beverage containers, such as bottles, jars, and jugs made from plastic, aluminum, and glass.
The program works by requiring retailers to pay a 5 cent deposit to beverage distributors for each bottle they purchase. Consumers then pay a 5 cent deposit for each bottle they purchase from the retailer. If the consumer returns the bottles to the retailer, they receive their 5 cent deposit back, and the retailer receives theirs from the distributor. The distributor collects all returned containers and is allowed to keep the profits from the sale of the recycled containers. Deposits for unreturned bottles are either kept by the distributor/retailer or given over to the state, depending on how the individual state has implemented the program.
The program proved very effective for reducing the amount of litter on Oregon's beaches, and it gave a boost to the state's fledgling recycling industry. Soon after, other states began implementing their own versions of bottle bills to combat litter and help save landfill space. Today there are 10 states with active bottle bills; the others are California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, New York, and Vermont. These states have seen remarkable improvements in their recycling rates since enacting container deposit programs. Vermont currently recycles 85 percent of all of its beverage containers through its own bottle bill program. And Michigan has an even higher recycling rate of 97 percent for all beverage containers sold within the state, although it should be noted that Michigan offers 10 cents for each container, rather than the usual 5 cent deposit. All other bottle bill states have achieved a container recycling rate of 80 percent, well above the averages of states that lack a container deposit program.
Though bottle bills have proven effective for reducing litter and increasing recycling participation, they have not caught on in the vast majority of states. This is partly because the beverage container industry firmly opposes container deposit legislation, making the program's expansion to other states a non-starter. Another reason is that many state governments are averse to policies that tinker with free-market behavior, a core concept for any container deposit program. Lastly, some view bottle bills as a half-measure for reducing waste because the bills target only beverage containers and exclude other types of recyclable commodities.
In order to recover those other recyclables, some states have turned towards landfill diversion mandates to gradually reduce the use of landfills. These mandates are particularly popular in California, where the state's waste management industry has been operating under the provisos of the Integrated Waste Management Act since 1989. The act established long-term waste reduction goals that required local jurisdictions to reduce their landfill waste by 25 percent by 1995 and a further 50 percent by the year 2000. With these goals in place, California was able to hit its ultimate target of 50 percent by 2005. Since then, the state has continually improved its diversion rate, which currently stands at 65 percent. The state has now upped the ante by calling for a recycling rate of 75 percent by 2020, followed by 90 percent diversion in 2025.
Most other states have shied away from outright mandating recycling, instead preferring to ban certain materials from landfills. Beginning this fall, the state of Massachusetts will institute a landfill ban on commercial food waste. This ban will see several hundred thousand tons of organic waste sent to composters and anaerobic digesters, rather than left to rot in a landfill. The ban will help conserve landfill space in a state that is rapidly running out of land to fill. The total landfill capacity of the state currently stands at 1.4 million tons and is projected to plummet to a mere 600,000 tons by 2020, raising disposal rates and forcing the state to export more trash to other states. For this reason, the state is also implementing waste reduction goals of 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, with the commercial food waste ban forming the vanguard for future waste recovery initiatives.
From City to City
Though many states are making headway in the realm of waste reduction, there are many cities that have decided to take matters into their own hands. San Francisco is one of the most pioneering cities in the country when it comes to sustainable waste management. In 2009, the city government made recycling and composting mandatory for all residents and businesses, dramatically increasing the city's landfill diversion rate from 70 percent in 2009 to 80 percent in 2013. The city provides all residents with three different bins meant for collecting general trash, commingled recycling, and organic waste. Each of these bins is emptied by the city's contracted waste collection service that also sorts and processes each specific waste. Those who regularly fail to separate their wastes are subject to fines of up to $100, providing an incentive for even the most resistant residents to get on board.
The only other American city that has instituted both mandatory recycling and composting is Seattle, but the compost mandate does not apply to many small businesses and apartments. Even with these exemptions, the city's landfill diversion rate has climbed to 56.2 percent from a low of 38.2 percent in 2003. Seattle hopes to achieve an overall recycling rate of 60 percent by 2015, putting the city on firm footing to catch up to San Francisco over the coming years.
The success stories coming out of San Francisco and Seattle have inspired other cities to take a hard look at their own waste reduction efforts. Minneapolis recently hired its first zero-waste coordinator to start crafting policies to boost the city's dismal recycling rate (37 percent as of this year). And some officials are already considering the inclusion of compost pickup as part of the city's regular trash collection services.
Where Do We Waste from Here?
Though some state and local governments have made significant improvements in curbing their own MSW rates, the country as a whole still has a long way to go. At present, the national recycling rate sits at 34.5 percent -- just three percentage points higher than where it was in 2005. But the total production of MSW has actually decreased during the past nine years. In 2005, MSW generation peaked at 253.7 million tons per year, and it then fell to 250.9 million tons in 2012. This was partially due to the economic recession of 2008 but also reflected improvements in waste reduction.
But so long as the country is without a national recycling mandate, the only way to improve that rate is through local and state governments, those who have the greatest say in the way we waste.
Kevin Rossignol is a writer and outreach coordinator for Budget Dumpster.com, a national dumpster rental service that operates throughout the country. The company provides low-cost roll-off dumpsters for construction, residential, and industrial projects.