US Throws $11.4 Billion in the Trash. Every Year.

Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

Can We Really Afford to Do That?

A recent report by As You Sow, a non-profit focusing on promoting "environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies", shows that Americans are throwing cash in the trash, almost literally. At least 11.4 billion dollars in recyclables - steel, plastics, glass, paper, etc - are not recycled and thus wasted. The report argues for "extended producer responsibility" (EPR), which would shift the responsibility for post-consumer waste from taxpayers and municipal governments to the companies that produce the packaging, creating incentives for producers to reduce the amount of packaging they create, increasing packaging recycling rates, providing revenue to improve recycling systems, and reducing carbon and energy use.

We Have Met the Enemy, And He Is Waste...

It does sound very good when put like that, though let's not kid ourselves: Companies make stuff, but we buy it, and the cost of this system would move from "taxpayers" to "consumers", so it would still be the same people bearing it. The good news would be that the incentives would be much better for effective recycling programs and reductions in packaging.

As You Sow/Screen capture

Still, a lot of money could be saved and less environmental damage would be done. This is even more true now that billions of people around the world are getting out of abject poverty and starting to use more of everything (materials & energy). That's a very good thing from a humanitarian point of view, but this change must be done in a way that protects the ecosystems which support all life on Earth.

Flickr/CC BY 3.0

So this report only looked at the U.S., but it's no doubt much the same all around the world, with some places doing better and some places doing worse. But this is an opportunity: While a lot of money can be saved now by stopping this waste of useful materials, it should pay even more as time goes on. It's likely that we are in the early stages of a commodities trend that will only lead to higher prices over the next decades as large parts of Asia, South-America and Africa develop economically quickly and supply of many commodities will have trouble keeping up, in good part because commodity prices were pretty low during the 1980s and 1990s and very little investment was made in exploration.

So to come back to recycling, these higher prices should provide one more incentive for not throwing out perfectly good steel or paper to the landfill. Cutting this waste doesn't just make environmental sense, it also makes economic sense if only we can properly align incentives for optimal recycling.

Via As You Sow, LA Times

See also: Waste Reduction and Recycling Can Cut CO2 by 345 Million Tons Year

Tags: longreads | Recycling

2014 Gift Guide

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK