Recycling doesn’t work because most people aren’t doing it.
I’m sure we have all experienced this problem at Sinclair: we have some trash, maybe a sandwich wrapper and a plastic soda bottle, that we need to discard. Our options are the trashcan 10 feet away or the recycling bin two or three buildings away. My guess is that, most of the time, the trashcan gets the trash.
In 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated 254 million tons of trash, of which 169 million tons ended up being disposed of in landfills or by other means such as incinerators. That is enough trash to cover every square mile of the United States in one year.
All of this trash carries its own tons of practical and environmental concerns, from where to put it to what to do with all of the hazardous materials that are often generated by it. Simultaneously, landfills continue to fill up and other methods of trash disposal continue to be revealed to be potentially toxic. People in fewer and fewer areas across the country are willing to open their land to landfills or other disposal methods because they want to avoid those concerns.
The tragedy of this statistic is that as much as 70 percent, or 118 million tons, of the trash that ended up in landfills or elsewhere could probably have been recycled.
While the volume of trash being recycled in the United States continues to grow, that growth struggles to keep up with the increase in the amount of trash produced. According to the EPA, barely one-third of all trash was recovered by recycling or composting in 2007. Meanwhile, millions of tons of paper, metals, compostable organics and recyclable plastics end up being buried or burned, meaning that more of those same materials must be cut, mined, grown, or drilled even while the products produced end up being dumped in big holes in the ground and buried.
At some point, this system cannot help but fail, yet most efforts to get people to recycle more also fail.
The reason these efforts fail is because people do not recycle because they do not have to. The way the recycling system functions, it takes work to recycle, whether it is finding a recycling bin or sorting our trash, and people will not do extra work if they do not have to.
I would usually be the last person to suggest that we need to pass more laws that force people to do anything, but the problem of 118 million tons and more of unrecycled recyclable trash has to be solved, and the law is likely the only way to solve it. If people know that there will be consequences for not recycling, there will be an incentive to recycle.
The laws I am talking about do not have to be penalties, although penalties tend to make people respond. Such laws can also include incentives for people, companies and industries that increase their recycling.
Sure, these laws will cause growing pains as everyone goes through the change, but the result will be 118 million tons less trash every year.