Recycling and Waste in the 21st Century
LEED AP, Director of Sustainability Practices, Asset Network for Education Worldwide (ANEW)
Many of today’s products are made for mass consumption. An unintended side effect of society’s hunger for more is a resulting amount of waste; millions and millions of tons of waste generated every year. While recycling is a common form of cutting down on this waste, a vast majority of products are not designed to be recycled today. Even recycling an object can require a great deal of energy to reprocess the object into a new material for reuse.
Some staggering statistics:
- More than 7 billion pounds of PVC are thrown away in the United States every year.1
- The average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash per day. This equates to 1,642 pounds per person per year.2
- On average, 35 percent of total waste produced in the United States is recycled. The remaining 65 percent is landfilled or incinerated.3
The issues of waste and consumption of products will not be solved quickly. In fact, they will only increase as the population grows and if recycling and re-use are not top priorities in product design. However, there are some short- and long-term solutions.
Landfills emit a CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) into the atmosphere. With approximately 300 billion tons of trash generated annually in the United States alone,3 a long-term solution could be to capture the landfill gas (LFG) emissions. Captured LFG emissions could be converted into electricity to power homes and businesses or into compressed natural gas to power cars.
Short-term opportunities — that can make a difference immediately — avoid putting waste in the landfill in the first place through downcycling and repurposing. Downcycling is an alternative to landfill and is a more commonly used form of recycling. Downcycling is the process of converting waste items into new materials or products of lesser quality and reduced functionality. While downcycling also extends the life of a material, it still requires a large amount of energy from nonrenewable fossil fuel sources.
There are many entities that specialize in taking what some consider trash and repurposing it into useful items without the need for vast amounts of energy. For example, ANEW is a nonprofit organization practicing Social Sustainability®, uniting corporate social responsibility with environmental sustainability.
ANEW takes furniture, fixtures and equipment from decommissioned commercial space and repurposes the items to those in need, thus diverting materials from the landfill and enabling both donors and recipients to realize financial, social and environmental benefits. By increasing the lifespan of items that would have become landfill, organizations such as ANEW are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as addressing the needs of the underserved.
Environmental Service Management Group (ESMG), a green building solutions provider based in Wall, N.J., helps its clients develop green programs in waste management, building maintenance, construction and corporate sustainability, with the goal of minimizing — or avoiding — the creation of waste during renovation or new construction projects and beyond.
ESMG recently worked with ANEW to divert between 75 and 150 workstations being discarded as part of a client’s office renovation. According to ESMG, transporting the materials to a landfill would have cost its client between $9,000 and $10,000. Diverting the materials for reuse with the help of ANEW cost significantly less.
The answer to the world’s trash problem is quite complex and could have tomes dedicated to it. At a minimum, items such as old furniture, fixtures and equipment should always be considered for reuse. And recycling options should be considered for any material that cannot be reused or repurposed.
1Clean Air Council, Waste and Recycling Facts, http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html
2Environmental Protection Agency, Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2009, http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2009-fs.pdf
3Zero Waste, Waste and Recycling: Data Maps and Graphs, http://www.zerowasteamerica.org/statistics.htm