Since 1960, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has collected and reported data on the generation and disposal of waste in the United States. The EPA recently released figures for 2011, revealing long-term trends on what we are recycling and throwing away.
What do these long-term trends show? In 1960, we generated 88 million tons of waste and recycled 6 percent of it (5.6 million tons). In 2011, we generated about 250 million tons of waste and recycled and composted about 87 million tons of it, for a recycling rate of 35 percent. But while we are recycling more, we are also generating more than we did in 1960.
How much of this increased generation can be attributed to population growth? If you take population into account, we find that individuals are recycling more and throwing away less than they did in 1960. Solid waste generation peaked in the year 2000.
Recycling in 2011
What are we best at recycling? Almost 84 percent of the 87 million tons we recycled was made up of paper and paperboard, yard trimmings and metals.
The EPA report also includes a breakdown of 2011 recycling rates of various products:
- Auto batteries were recycled the most frequently, at 96.2 percent
- Newspapers and mechanical paper made up 72.5 percent
- Steel cans, 70.6 percent
- Yard trimmings, 57.3 percent
- Aluminum cans, 54.5 percent
- Tires, 44.6 percent
- Glass containers, 34.2 percent
- PET bottles and jars, 29.2 percent
- HDPE bottles, 21.0 percent
The EPA estimates that our recycling reduced more than 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (equal to the greenhouse gas emissions from 34 million passenger vehicles) and saved more than 1.1 quadrillion Btu of energy (enough to power 10 million U.S. households for a year).
Discards in 2011
What are we still throwing away? Food waste represents more than 21 percent of our discards (see an earlier blog about reducing your foodprint). After food, plastics weigh in at nearly 18 percent and paper and paperboard still makes up 15 percent.