The Business of Recycling and Garbage

The Business of Recycling and Garbage

Americans generate some two hundred and fifty million tons of waste every year. Our options are to bury, burn or recycle it. Over half of it is buried in landfills, often after being transported across states lines. This is in part...

Americans generate some two hundred and fifty million tons of waste every year. Our options are to bury, burn or recycle it. Over half of it is buried in landfills, often after being transported across states lines. This is in part why garbage is a seventy billion dollar industry. Recycling is about a third of that business. It’s been praised as a huge environmental success, in the U.S. more people recycle than vote. But it has also recently come under criticism for economic reasons and for environmental issues over e-waste, among other things. Diane and her panel of experts discuss finding better ways to manage our garbage.

Guests

Bruce Parker

president & CEO of National Solid Wastes Management Association, a trade association representing for-profit waste and recycling companies in North America.

Samantha MacBride

Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, author of "Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States."

Allen Hershkowitz

senior scientist, Natural Resources Defense Council

Program Highlights

Americans generate lots of garbage, almost four and a half pounds per person, per day. Over half goes to the nation's 2400 landfills, some is incinerated, and roughly one-third is recycled. Diane and guests talked about how we handle trash today.

Recycling "Woefully Underdeveloped In The U.S."

"Recycling is woefully underdeveloped in the United States. For municipal waste we recycle about a third of our garbage...I've written books on garbage management in Japan and Europe and I've been there studying it. They recycle twice as much - at least twice as much of the waste than we do," Hershkowitz said. These areas have better policies and limit the amount of trash that can go in to landfills, he said, unlike here in the U.S.

The Influence Of Federal Policies

Federal policies have allowed states to send trash across their own lines and into other states, Parker said. "Up until 1976, there were thousands of these small open dumps throughout the United States. We've all seen them growing up. They had no sanitary protection, no environmental protection, it was during the time when people burned leaves for example out in the streets, which you can't do anymore," he said. "When you're living in a really dense area like the northeast and the central part of the United States where they don't have a lot of land density, or politically they can't put up a waste energy plant, they have to send it someplace, and therefore, they're sending it to different countries," he said.

Curbside Collection Problems

McBride emphasized that the value of glass is destroyed when it is included in co-mingled curbside collections. "It is going to be going to very low end uses as aggregate or road base. And there's absolutely no reason why glass could not be treated differently, either separately collected or better yet routed back for refill using a strong deposit system such as they have in Europe," she said.

The U.S. Is Doing "Many Good Things"

Despite all the problems with recycling and waste management, Parker pointed out that he believes the U.S. is doing many good things in the area. The issue of electronics waste is a particularly contentious one. "This is a complex question and there certainly are documented abuses in e-waste handling in developing countries, but I would also like to point out that there are e-waste recyclers in the U.S. who are working with reputable recyclers and refurbishers in countries like Ghana and also South America and trying to route exported e-waste to responsible processing, often not involving recycling, but refurbishment so that these items can be actually reused in the country of import," MacBride said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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