In 1987, the garbage barge sailed into history. Laden with more than 3,000 tons of New York City’s finest trash, the barge wandered down the East Coast and around the Caribbean unsuccessfully looking for a home. The barge sailed during a slow news cycle. It became the story that wouldn’t die.
Fascinated – and appalled – by the news accounts, state legislators made recycling into their green crusade. By the end of 1990, most states had enacted recycling laws. These laws varied in the details, but they aimed reduce the amount of waste generated, reduce the amount sent to disposal and boost the amount recycled. A new era had begun.
More than 20 years after that ill-fated voyage, did those laws succeed in reducing waste and promoting recycling? Clearly, they had an impact. Based on EPA data, total trash generation has flattened out. More importantly, perhaps, we each produce less waste now than we did back then. The decline on a per person basis is modest, but the trend is clear: we are not making garbage like we used to.
That decline, however, is mostly due to sweeping changes in the products we use in our daily lives, not because we are deliberately using less stuff. For instance, the amount of plastic packaging has doubled since 1990. In doing so, it has displaced heavier packaging materials, creating less potential waste in the process. At the same time, printed paper is down by almost a third, as we have shifted to using electronic media to transmit knowledge. As for electronic products like computers and cell phones, EPA didn’t even have a separate category to track them back in 1990.
Yes, we are recycling more. The sponsors of all those post garbage barge laws should be pleased that we have sent less waste to disposal since 1990. Recycling and composting have increased dramatically, going up by 54 million tons, or 161 percent.
In particular, the amount of packaging we recycle has more than doubled since 1990 to slightly more than 50 percent. Recycling of newspapers, office paper and all other kinds of printed paper, has shot through the roof, reaching a 75-percent recycling rate. Yard waste composting has also been a major success story as we compost almost four times as much as in 1990. We also make less yard waste due, no doubt, to the rise of grasscycling and backyard composting.
As a result, legislators are turning their attention to increasing food waste recovery. They know that if we are serious about diverting waste from disposal, food waste recovery – whether through composting or anaerobic digestion – represents the greatest opportunity.
In the last two years, several states have passed laws to increase food waste recovery. Unfortunately, those states have not learned their lessons from their earlier recycling laws. They have overlooked the reality that food waste presents more daunting collection and processing challenges than recyclables. They have forgotten that we need markets for the finished products from the composting and anaerobic digestion facilities. After all, recycling markets did not miraculously spring up twenty years ago to handle those new raw materials.
Legislators need to remember that our current successes in recycling took two decades and we still have opportunities to increase our recycling rate. Solving food waste recovery will be no quicker. But 20 years from now, look for my column celebrating our success with food!