Americans, on average, generate 4.9 pounds of garbage a day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That works out to roughly 300 million tons of solid waste per year.
While progress has been made in reducing the amount that ends up in landfills, consumers and lawmakers still have room for improvement. Education about recycling and legislative efforts can help prevent the dystopian future depicted in the 2008 animated film “WALL-E,” where future Earth has become an uninhabitable, garbage-covered landscape.
“We can do more,” said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association, a representative group for the private solid waste industry. “I think for individual citizens, recycling at the curb is one of the most meaningful things you can do.”
Decades ago, newspapers and perhaps some tin cans were collected and dropped off at recycling centers by a handful of forward-thinking citizens; now, newspapers, glass, scrap paper and some plastics are placed in bins that are picked up at curbside. It is convenient and represents a vast societal change over the past several generations.
In 1960, the EPA reports, the national recycling rate was 7 percent; now it is 32 percent. In Washington, the recycling rate is 49 percent, according to the state Department of Ecology.
This reflects a broad change in thinking that started taking hold in the 1960s, when Americans recognized that environmental degradation was unsustainable. New laws limited the pollution that companies could spew into the air or spill into waterways; harmful chemicals came under scrutiny; and the EPA was created by Congress and President Richard Nixon.
For those who favor the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, we recommend Documerica, a photo collection from the early 1970s that documents how Americans were abusing their environment.
An increase in household recycling has been an important part of that environmental movement. But there are some glitches.
Most important, as detailed in a recent article by Columbian reporter Lauren Ellenbecker, is a lack of clarity about what can and cannot be recycled. Approximately 20 percent of material received at West Van Materials Recovery Center, one of Clark County’s three transfer stations, cannot be processed because of contamination. Containers, cans and plastic bottles with food remnants cannot be recycled, and sorters at the plant spend their shifts “undoing everything that people did at home.”
Other issues involve the inclusion of plastics that are not recyclable or have misleading labels suggesting they can be reused. Starting next year, California will require transparency from producers, and Washington should follow that lead.
The Washington Recycling and Packaging Act (House Bill 1134) passed multiple committees this year but was not brought to the floor. Lawmakers should reconsider it during next year’s session.
Contaminated containers and misleading packages contribute what industry experts refer to as “wishcycling,” which calls for diligence from consumers. Reducing the number of unrecyclable items will help ease processing and ultimately help keep costs down for customers.
Americans, particularly in Washington, have done an effective job of reducing the amount of garbage that winds up in landfills. But there are additional ways to better protect our environment — if only we have the will.