Time to Redefine ‘Waste’ in the US

Raise your hand if you recycle. This means you are creating what is known as separate waste. Its pickup and retrieval is called separate collection. Plastic goes in one bin, cans and other tin and aluminum waste in another, and paper goods in a third, right? Well, that is how it is supposed to work, but let me dazzle you with some statistics.

The following is a direct quote from an article on Wastecare Corp.’s Website:

In 1972, approximately 26,500 tons of aluminum cans were recycled and today that number is estimated to be as high as 800,000 tons. Over 100,000 Aluminum cans are recycled every minute in the U.S. alone. Every can that is recycled means more resources that are available at a lesser cost. Even though the economic benefits are straightforward, there are still many hundreds of thousands of tons of aluminum cans every year that are being disposed of alongside roadways, in dumpsters, and in office trash cans.
The average employee consumes 2.5 aluminum cans worth of beverages per day. Because of this, places of employment have implemented recycling programs by placing bins in break rooms, hallways, and offices. This helps prevent aluminum cans from landing in landfills and diverts them to the recycling centers like they should be (so that they can be recycled and back on store shelves within sixty days). It only takes about 6 weeks to manufacture, fill, sell, recycle and then remanufacture a beverage can. Used aluminum cans are recycled and returned to a store shelf as a new can in as few as 60 days.

Please notice the sentence about how many cans are left on roadways, in dumpsters, and in trash cans. If that much aluminum — the easiest trash to sort and recycle — is still ending up in landfills, what can we conclude about our other junk, including industry waste that is harder to dispose of but chock full of valuable natural resources?

Aluminum is the most abundant metal on earth, but the carbon footprint for extracting and processing aluminum ore is enormous. If we are talking about sustaining a supply chain, we don't foresee an aluminum shortage anytime soon. But if we are talking about sustaining the earth by slowing down the consequences of climate change, we need to consider how to become as efficient as possible in our recycling.

Here is another quote from the Wastecare article: “Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy that is required to make cans from virgin bauxite ore.” Energy savings on that scale is worth our attention.

In a study conducted by the European Commission with respect to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, it was discovered that 65 percent of the electric and electronic equipment waste placed on the market in 2008 had already been recycled, but more than half of it may have been treated improperly and exported illegally. Even when properly treated, there were no records of the treatment, either by content or weight. In other words, there were no reliable metrics for judging the success of the EU's waste management initiatives.

The latest recast of the directive, dated July 12, 2012, will require every recycling service provider to keep records of the amount of WEEE coming into their facility, as well as the weight, content, and volume of materials reclaimed and put back into the market. If you want to know how far you have come, you have to know where you started.

I know we have all gone to the dump to get rid of an old washing machine or refrigerator, but do you recall how much you had to pay to get rid of it? You already paid for it when you bought it. Should you have to pay for it again when it is just going into a landfill? No. It was not recycled. It was buried in the ground or dropped into the ocean. Things are changing in the United States, but not with the vigor we see in other countries.

The Environmental Protection Agency leads US efforts to improve recycling rates and reduce household and commercial waste. Today the US recycles about 28 percent of its waste, the EPA says — a rate that has almost doubled during the past 15 years. So we are getting better, right? Recycling rates vary from state to state. Alaska, Wyoming, and Montana recycle less than 9 percent of their waste. New York, Virginia, and five other states have rates higher than 40 percent.

I would say we have room to improve. Suppose every US state were as conscientious as New York and Virginia. Clearly it is possible. They did it. Are you feeling proud yet? The European Commission has set a target of 85 percent for WEEE recovery. That means recyclables are built into the designs of products, collection management tightens up, and people don't have to pay a penalty for turning in used goods.

Any manufacturer shipping into the EU must ensure that 55 percent (by weight) of the product is recyclable. The producer must identify and pay for the recycling cost and must identify the recyclers that will be involved in the recovery process.

There is a worldwide electronic part counterfeiting problem, mainly due to the uncontrolled diverting of WEEE to reclamation centers that practice blacktopping — remarking old parts as new. The counterfeiters will also market random ICs with entirely different, more expensive part number labels.

Waste is not just waste. That is the underlying philosophy of one of Europe's greenest countries. For decades, the Danish environment policy has been to regard waste as a resource. To regard it as anything else… well, that is just a shameful waste.

22 comments on “Time to Redefine ‘Waste’ in the US

  1. _hm
    August 24, 2012

    Yes, it is very simple. Follow Germany, recycling system is so simple but so effective. If you compare to that, it feels like north America do not have much of waste recycling system as yet.


  2. dalexander
    August 24, 2012

    @-hm, That is a true statement. But having Germany as an example shows that it is possible to achieve. The real benefit will come when the manufacturers stop packaging in a manner that is excessive. They are going for appearance and the cool package design without consideration for the environment. In the design for recycling world, meeting minimal packaging material mass should be encouraged. 35% of all plastics are used in packaging.

  3. _hm
    August 24, 2012

    This should also include food. Recent report shows 40% of food is wasted in USA. It is quite dissapointing, can it be reduced to 1% or lower?


  4. dalexander
    August 24, 2012

    @hm, please give me the link to the report about 40% of food being wasted.

  5. dalexander
    August 24, 2012

    @_hm, Here is what I found: Is this what you were referring to?

  6. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 25, 2012


    Waste management philosophy seems to be better defined in Germany.

      Avoidance, recovery, disposal . This is the principle of the waste hierarchy which is the basis for waste management in Germany. In the past waste was simply landfilled, but it has since been recognised that waste contains valuable raw materials which can be used to conserve natural resources.

    Waste avoidance means consuming less raw materials and reducing burdens on the environment.

    Waste recovery means that raw materials and energy are reintroduced into the economic cycle. German waste management is an important industrial sector and provides high-quality technology for the efficient use of waste as a resource and the environmentally sound disposal of the remaining residual waste.”   (From General Information Waste Management in Germany

          Other countries should learn from that principle.

  7. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 25, 2012


    Americans throw out 40% of food, study says – World – CBC News

    I doesn't surprise me, but it is indeed desapointing when we know that many people in poor countries don't have enough to eat and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet.

  8. elctrnx_lyf
    August 25, 2012

    I think European countries are ahead of many nations across the world. 55 percent of the product to be recyclable is really a great requirement from any electronic product company. But are other countries going to follow European regulations.

  9. ahdand
    August 25, 2012

    Well its a good percentage indeed and this is a good stepping stone for other countries to follow if they really do care. I feel we should create more awareness regarding the subject 

  10. _hm
    August 25, 2012

    There should be more stress in education from early childhood. Also, US student should more frequently visit and stay there for year or more to deeply understand their approach. This may be way to improve culture slowly.

    In general, in Germany and may be in Europe they do revere earth and environment as Goddess.


  11. _hm
    August 25, 2012

    @Douglas: It was in TV news. Apart from that, as it is 40% it should be more obvious in one's daily life.


  12. Nemos
    August 25, 2012

    ” For decades, the Danish environment policy has been to regard waste as a resource.”

    If we look at nature we can't find waste therefore we must act in the same way. All the products we produce must be recycled, otherwise in a few decades we have to find another planet to destroy…..

  13. Taimoor Zubar
    August 26, 2012

    Great point, Rich. I do agree that by having policies like BYOD companies are getting rid of the hassle of managing the recycling of hardware and ensuring their processes remain green. Although I'm not sure if it's really a bad idea to let the users handle the recycling part on their own.

  14. Mr. Roques
    August 26, 2012

    So, lets say we could recycle every single can out there, you're still saying companies are doing something wrong with them? like what?

  15. bolaji ojo
    August 26, 2012

    Unfortunately, some of what's happening today is merely to be compliant with the law and not because of a serious concern about the environment. The profit impetus is just way too strong and the short-term, deliver-first mentality driving businesses means the comprehensive program we need to undertake as a society will probably take way too long to happen.

    We do design for maximum profit rather than design for sustainability, which means most of the electronic equipment we buy and other products aren't designed to have the minimal impact on our society we desire but the highest profit we can garner.

  16. Taimoor Zubar
    August 27, 2012

    @Rich: Considering your example, do you think it can be a good technique if companies start paying out a certain incentive to consumers who bring the devices back to the manufacturers once their useful life is over? Would that help in improving the recycling process?

  17. Anna Young
    August 27, 2012

    Bolaji, you are absolutely correct and I agree with the point you have raised.  For example, a current estimate reveals the ICT industry is expected to generate 53millions tonnes of e waste by 2012. Only 13% of this waste is reported to be recycled with or without adequate safety procedures. As you are aware, the potential human impacts from this are toxic. . So what then happens now?

     I think (though like you mentioned a comprehensive programme may take too long) the challenge is to raise further  awareness among all actors, policy makers, producers, consumers and recyclers – in order to be aware of the environmental impact and realise the innovation potential that could lead to sustainable design and consumption.

  18. SP
    August 27, 2012

    Its remarkable to see the awrareness common people have in countries like US. Even the social communities like residential appartment building also do recycling and all the waste is categorized. Hope in Asian countries also common man start doing it.

  19. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 27, 2012

    That data is eye-opening, especially on the amount of energy it takes to actually create something that ends up as waste.

  20. ahdand
    August 27, 2012

    Exactly and according to my knowledge there is lot of wastage happening in the US itself and its not only in the field of technology but in other areas like food, medicine, etc… If there is a solution where you can recycle whatever which is due to go into the garbage basket, then lot of money can be saved.

  21. dalexander
    August 27, 2012

    @nimantha, Good point. My wife and I worked in Manila with a medical team serving 5000 families that lived on a garbage dump. The entire family made a “living” be picking through the garbage for old rice bags, rubber tires that could made into sandles, metal, and just about anything else that could be washed and reused. A day's wage was one dried fish, a scoop of rice, and a gallon of water. It was amazing to watch the people put together a livilihood off of waste products.

  22. ahdand
    September 22, 2012

    Exactly Douglas and this is something that the US government should address quickly. Its not just a wastage of food and products basically wastage of national economy.

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