The power of waste

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away nearly five pounds of trash every day, but we recycle only about 25 percent of it. The rest of the refuse piles up in our landfills.

How recycling began

Though evidence suggests our prehistoric relatives repurposed tools and precious metals, it’s generally accepted that recycling began around 400 B.C. when Turks recycled glass into vessels and Romans melted bronze coins to mold statues. Scientists also theorized by examining layers of buried waste that people recycled and reused materials when textiles and other goods were hard to come by, such as during famine, plague, and war.

Before the Industrial Revolution established the mass production of goods, creative reuse and recycling was common. Europeans started reusing copper and coal ash for cement in the 1500s, and a mill in Philadelphia turned old rags and waste paper into new paper in the late 1600s.

After the Industrial Revolution, new goods became readily available. By then, it was less expensive to throw things away than to recycle them. The Great Depression and World War II led to a mass effort to conserve and reuse items, like metal and rubber.

Environmentalists of the 1960s paved the way for recycling efforts that began in the 1970s. The throw-away culture shifted to the reduce-reuse-recycle practices that continue today.

Unending supply

Americans aren’t slowing down when it comes to throwing our stuff away. Waste production in the U.S. has steadily increased in recent years. The World Bank estimates that by 2050 we will increase our production of waste products 70 percent across the globe if things continue to progress as predicted.

Of the 262.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) we generated in 2015, paper and cardboard tops the list at 25.9 percent.At 15.1 percent, food waste comes in second on the garbage list, followed by yard trimmings and grass clippings at 13.2 percent and plastics at 13.1 percent. Metals make up 9.1 percent of all MSW, followed by 6.2 percent wood items, 6.1 percent textiles, 4.4 percent glass, and 3.2 percent rubber and leather goods.

©2015 EPA National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling

Consumption patterns in the U.S. are evolving, but given our increasing population and the convenience of online shopping and home delivery, there is a never-ending flow of products and packaging to use and discard.

Next time, we’ll explore what to do with all this waste and how utility companies can help lead the way with renewable energy.