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.