This just in: Americans only recycle 21.4 percent of discarded materials. The estimate challenges and falls well below the former U.S. recycling statistics of 34.5 percent, reported in 2012.

The recently reported stat was uncovered in a 2015 Yale University study, which was partially funded by the EPA and published in Nature Climate Change. To crunch the numbers, researchers directly measured the amount of waste in landfills, versus the former method of tallying estimated amounts that were reported by businesses to the government.

The U.S. Lags Behind


The U.S. definitely doesn’t stand on the podium among the world’s leading countries that recycle. The U.S. doesn’t even make this list of the Top 10 recycling countries from around the world. Comparatively, Austria—which holds the highest recycling rate out of any country in the world—diverts 63 percent of its waste into recycling.

However, it’s worth noting Americans are not creating more trash than other countries around the world. This was pointed out by Bucknell University professor Thomas Kinnaman—who studies the economics of solid waste and recycling—in
a Phys.org article written by Seth Borenstein.

Furthermore, MSW Recycling Rates from 1960 to 2012 show that the amount of waste being recycled has increased year over year most likely due to Americans’ proactivity and effort.

MSW recycling rates from the EPA

(Image Source: EPA.gov)



So, while LED light bulbs, energy efficient vehicles, community gardens, and e-waste donation centers all seem to be blossoming across the country, how can the U.S. still not be setting a winning example?

We dove into analyzing U.S. recycling facts. Our hope? To narrow down a few of the weakest links in the system…

Construction & Demolition Waste


One glaring issue found by Yale’s study: a sample of the landfill waste (which, may or may not be an accurate representation of nationwide patterns) reflected that 12.8 percent of the material wasn’t coming from people’s homes. It was construction and demolition debris.

In Austria, C&D waste management has been in place for several decades.

Here’s the big picture: Austria’s initiatives exist on the state and local level. For instance, the city of Vienna created a guideline to reduce C&D waste. Across the country, C&D waste is collected and recovered by smaller or mid-sized companies (10-50 employees), of which 80 percent are members of the Austrian Association for Recycling of Building Materials. In the U.S. the EPA promotes sustainable materials management and the CDRA (Construction & Demolition Recycling Association) is hard at work to promote C&D recycling throughout America. GK is a proud supporter of the CDRA and its members as they continue to work hard to institute better environmental practices in the U.S.

What’s among the top obstacles that prevent successful C&D waste management? Soft federal regulations (ahem), reported the Austria CDW management in 2015. Other challenges include heterogeneous quality of materials, lack of economic incentives, and speculation regarding the end-of-life status for materials that need to meet strict standards.

Austria has successfully progressed its C&D waste practices through developing a well-established network, strong legal framework, collaborations between industry and policy makers, an establishment of quality norms, and enforcement. In likewise effort, US C&D recyclers are working hard to increase recycling within this waste stream, too.

Sorting


People need to toss out their trash correctly, in order for materials to be properly sorted and converted or returned to a manufacturer who can reuse those materials. To succeed, people need to first be educated and informed on how to recycle what items.

“Austria has a long tradition for diverting waste from landfill and has a long established good recycling system and performance. Most of the MSW generated in the country is either recycled or incinerated,” as published in the Municipal waste management report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA.)

In a countrywide and uniform capacity, American recycling resources—properly labeled bins, pick-up locations, etc.—need to be established and accessible. Ideally, that looks like recycling receptacles being placed at people’s homes, in public spaces, and on construction and demolition sites. Recycling bins need standardized labels that are obvious, clear, and easily understood. Sustainable waste management companies need to be created. Existing companies in eco-manufacturing spaces, such as General Kinematics, need to help make recycling more efficient and strive to bring recycling to the forefront of daily life. And a systematic collection needs to be available in cities as well as rural communities.

Thereafter, new societal norms can form.

The Forecast


The EPA has declared that they are thinking beyond waste, and are actively brainstorming a systematic approach that will provide a transition from waste management to sustainable materials management (SMM).

While the goal is a beefy one, Recycle Across America reports that when U.S. recycling levels reach 75 percent it will be the environmental and CO2 equivalent of discarding 55 million vehicles from the roads—each year—plus an accumulation of 1.5 million new jobs across the country.

General Kinematics is on board with the equipment to help make it happen. Let’s do this.

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