Recycling was only a band-aid; Americans need to consume less

Now that the recycled products of Americans are no longer desirable, perhaps it will start a new broader conversation: when will Americans consume less?

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash…

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

The whole American lifestyle revolves around consumption and includes innumerable objects that are difficult to reuse or refuse. Much of it seems to come under the ideologies of efficiency, cheapness, and convenience. Envision Walmart. It is not just about small items or particular companies; it even makes its way to some of the largest purchases Americans make including buying larger homes to store more stuff.

What would it take to start the ball rolling away from consumption of goods? A small set of Americans have voluntarily done this – I recall reading about downshifters in sociologist Juliet Schor’s twenty year old book The Overspent American. A major company like Amazon or Walmart could make a big dent. Or, perhaps some government regulations might help nudge the free market in the right direction. There is a slight chance a movement of conscious consumers could help lead to change.

And if consumption levels do end up dropping, this could effect all sorts of areas in American social life. What would happen to fast food? The smartphone industry? Housing? Carmakers? Food producers and distributors? Watching it all play out could be fascinating.

Bringing food waste recycling to the suburbs

The next step in recycling may be coming to a suburb near you:

So far, food scrap collection programs have been voluntary. But starting in May 2017, it will be mandatory in Highwood, a first in Illinois. Several towns in Lake County and other suburbs have or will have some option to recycle food scraps this year.

“We’re going to be trend setters, I like to think,” said Adrian Marquez, assistant to the Highwood city manager. “We know this is going to be big test.”…

U.S. residents throw away up to 40 percent of their food, which amounted to more than 35 million tons in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported…

With an overall recycling rate of 48 percent but a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2020, Lake County has emerged as a regional leader in residential food scrap collection. That diversion rate is priming Lake County’s effort, but DuPage, Will, Cook, and Kane counties also are promoting food composting as municipal hauling contracts go to bid or are renegotiated, Allen said.

This article leaves me with a number of questions:

  1. When the program is mandatory as opposed to voluntary, what does that mean? Residents have to participate as opposed to not participate?
  2. I assume this is more effective in the long run in encouraging participation and disposing of more food waste but are there numbers to back this up? As noted, some people have composted for years; is that a viable alternative to promote in suburbs or are very few people willing to go to that trouble?
  3. Is being the first to this a marker of a particular quality of life in some suburbs? In other words, do communities want to participate partly because it signals something important about what their community values?

It will be interesting to see if this does become the new normal within a few years.

No one wants your old, heavy, non flat screen TVs

Thrift stores and recyclers in the Chicago area are not thrilled to get old TVs:

In 2012, an Illinois law took effect prohibiting residents from throwing televisions in the trash. But places that used to take them are either cutting back or no longer accepting them. Others are starting to charge to take old televisions…

The Salvation Army thrift stores have stopped taking them because used TVs don’t sell, said Ron McCormick, business manager for The Salvation Army’s greater Chicago area…

In Will County, e-recycling centers might stop taking televisions and other electronic waste entirely on Feb. 11 if a deal isn’t reached between the county and its recycling contractor, said Dean Olson, resource, recovery and energy director for Will County.

So, what is a consumer to do? THe solution proposed at the end of the article:

“We’re just being flooded, especially with those giant TVs,” Jarland said. “If they’re still working, keep using them.”

It would be interesting to see the overall numbers regarding how quickly Americans have replaced their old TVs. Given how much TV Americans watch and the technology (which dropped in price pretty quickly) of the last ten years that has led to a better TV viewing experience, this may not be a surprise. But, it makes recycling or being green tougher: people are simply buying a new television or two to replace the one that still works. They could still watch TV and save money with their old units but we refuse today to watch smaller, non-HD screens. (Though watching small screens isn’t necessarily on the way out – those who keep pushing TV on the smartphone, tablet, and computer are advocating for small TV but this is mostly about convenience, not preference.) Who should be responsible for disposing of these old televisions? Perhaps consumers should have to pay a fee to dispose of their old models.

For the record, I disposed of several older TVs at Best Buy in recent years. No resale shop wanted them. No relative wanted to use them. Would paying $5 each stopped me from properly disposing of the television? I’m sure there is some price point that would make sense.

New York City interested in large-scale food scrap recycling

National Geographic discusses plans for food scrap recycling in New York City:

In his State of the City address in February, Bloomberg had called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The administration says it will soon be looking to pay a local composting plant to process 100,000 tons of food scraps a year, or about 10 percent of the city’s residential food waste. In the Big Apple, only residential refuse is handled directly by the city, since businesses must hire private disposal service providers…

The city says it also intends to hire a company to build a plant that will turn food waste into biogas—methane that can be burned to generate electricity just like natural gas. The food waste program is expected to ramp up over the next few years, starting with volunteers, until it reaches full deployment around 2015 or 2016…

Under the mayor’s new program, participants will get picnic-basket-size containers, which they can fill with everything from used coffee filters to broccoli stalks. Those bins will then be emptied into bigger brown containers at the curb for pickup. Those who live in apartment buildings, as many Manhattanites do, will drop the waste off at centralized bins.

Administration officials told reporters that the city can save $100 million a year composting food waste instead of sending it to landfills, most of which are in other states. Bloomberg has said he expects the program may become mandatory in the coming years, although that will be up to his predecessors, since his term is winding down.

Curbside composting! Read on to see how this has played out in San Francisco which has had mandatory food waste composting for several years.

The green efforts plus the potential cost-savings will interest a lot of people. But, this is also a large infrastructure effort involving getting containers to residents, coordinating pickups and centralized locations, and then finally disposing of the material. I hope we see more about how such a program is implemented and effectively run. And, if the program has such good benefits, why haven’t more cities jumped into this? Perhaps it is just a matter of time. Also, could suburban composting work like this or are there more costs due to lower densities?

Side note: it will be interesting to see the visuals of compost boxes out on New York streets. The contrast between garbage day in New York City versus Chicago and its system of alleys where the garbage is away from the street is striking.