In the last two decades, Americans have witnessed a revolution in how we manage our trash. Almost 20 years ago, EPA launched this revolution with new municipal solid waste landfill criteria designed to ensure that our waste was managed in the most environmentally responsible manner possible. Those guidelines have worked well. Americans can be proud that the days of open burning dumps and unlined landfills are behind us. We have won the public health battle with waste disposal.
At the same time, Americans grasped the tremendous resource and energy conservation advantages of recycling. Two decades ago, multi-material residential curbside programs were still relatively uncommon. Today, they are the norm. Recycling and composting tonnages increased by nearly 150 percent since 1990. In 2009 we recycled or composted 82 million tons, up from 33 million tons in 1990. While protecting the public health will always be a priority for American waste and recycling companies, we are now a resource management industry.
Nonetheless, our society still generates a significant amount of waste that must be managed every single day. Americans produced almost 243 million tons in 2009. And we still dispose of a good deal of that trash at landfills or waste to energy facilities, almost 162 million tons in 2009. Yet even though the waste stream increased at the same rate as did population, we sent more than 13.4 million tons less waste to disposal than we did in 1990, due to increased recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts.
As a result of our success in taming the size of the waste stream, more and more attention is being turned to the concept of "zero waste."
What is zero waste?
Zero waste means many things to different people. To consumers, zero waste means maximizing recycling efforts and putting less into the trash. To waste collection and recycling service providers, zero waste means finding and using the most cost effective and environmentally sound methods for collecting, processing, marketing and disposal of society's wastes. To product manufacturers, zero waste can mean a complete review of their manufacturing process to identify ways to reduce waste and to make their products more recyclable. And, for government, zero waste is a goal for the future which requires realistic planning and investment.
Over the past 5 years, manufacturers and retailers have lead the way in adopting programs to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost as much of their waste stream as possible. They are converting a waste into a resource because they see sustainable bottom line benefits.
We see America transitioning slowly but surely to a zero waste society. This does not mean that no waste will be produced in the future. Instead, it means that the amount going to disposal will continue to progressively decline. We support this transition. The objective of zero waste is to reduce the waste stream to the point at which no commercially achievable economic value exists for the remaining residue of the waste reduction process. Experienced, knowledgeable environmental services companies with proven and permitted collection, processing and disposal activities will lead the way in this transformation.
Why take a position?
The National Waste & Recycling Association is stepping forward to facilitate a discussion among the public, waste collection service providers, customers, manufacturers, government, and consumers on how we can collectively work toward zero waste. The Association firmly believes that the responsibility for cooperative action rest with each of us and that it is time to move ahead in that direction.
Transition to zero waste
Our industry has been the leader in developing sophisticated technology to increase both the amount and commercial value of recyclable materials from our waste stream through properly permitted and operated materials recycling facilities (MRFs). For the material currently sent to disposal, we are extracting methane gas from landfills and converting it into clean, renewable energy to generate electricity or for beneficial reuse in heating and cooling local manufacturing plants, schools, government buildings, as well as producing alternate fuels to power our vehicle fleets. Our industry is developing new technologies to further utilize the largely organic waste stream that presently has no commercially achievable economic value.
We recognize that the transition to zero waste will not be easy or swift. It took 19 years for America's recycling and composting rate to double from 16.2 percent in 1990 to 33.8 percent in 2009. Increasing that rate further poses unique challenges. Manufacturers, government, service providers and consumers must work together to progress towards this goal.
Waste stream reduction must occur at properly licensed and permitted facilities to ensure full compliance with all appropriate laws and regulations in order to protect the public health and the environment. Shortcuts in recycling and composting can inadvertently lead to an increased carbon footprint, fail to reduce the waste stream and potentially cause environmental damage that will be difficult to monitor and correct. Zero waste must be approached as a series of steps, all of which must be thoroughly understood to fully optimize system efficiencies. Additionally, the economics of zero waste must be understood and taken into account when deciding how and what to eliminate from the waste stream. And, finally the infrastructure needs to be developed to assist in the achievement of zero waste.
We look forward to working with state and local governments, manufacturers and our customers in reducing the size of the waste stream and increasing the size of the recovery stream. Only by working together and sharing in the responsibilities for zero waste will we be able to celebrate its success.