By Mark Milby, IUOS No Waste Program Coordinator
According to the EPA, the U.S.’s recycling rate (waste recycled or composted divided by total waste) was 34% in 2010. Whether or not you find this impressive depends on your perspective; personally, I find the recycling of 85 million tons of material reassuring, but I also roll my eyes since I happen to know that the majority of my trash is recyclable (and then another quarter is compostable).
For proof, take a look at how the EPA breaks down MSW (Municipal Solid Waste – what you and I put at the curb) waste by component (embedded pie chart)… over 80% of it is easily recycled or composted. Like Erik said last week, this stuff is not rocket science: I bring recyclables to the Downtown Bloomington Recycling Center every few weeks, and I have a simple trash can behind my house where I throw food scraps, grass, and leaves. I’ve never bought soil or fertilizer for my garden. 80% waste diversion, easy peasy.
Regardless, 66% of MSW is not recycled. So where does it go? In most parts of the world, it winds up in a landfill. But there’s a sector of waste management growing so rapidly it is altering entire national economies. It’s growing so quietly – perhaps to avoid a potentially negative public reaction – you might not recognize it in your own backyard. I’m talking about waste-to-energy, or the combustion of trash to produce electricity or steam.
Sweden made headlines last week when it was announced that the country is now importing trash from Norway and making plans to expand to Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy. Why? Swedish engineers have increased the efficiency of the waste-to-energy process so much (90%!) that the country now only landfills 4% of its waste. Now, as more and more plants are being built, the country is desperately in need of more fuel. We’re seeing the same scenario in Indianapolis, where the Covanta-owned Harding Street Incinerator is turning trash into steam that heats almost every downtown building, including IUPUI, Eli Lilly, and Lucas Oil Stadium. For more on the Harding Street facility, check out this article by my friend Addison Pollock.
- How does demand for trash affect recycling? Anecdotal evidence suggests communities powered by waste-to-energy discourage recycling. Industry argument / Anti-industry argument
- Since waste-to-energy produces energy, is it better than recycling? A tricky question – the answer is probably no.
- How much pollution does waste-to-energy create? Good summary article
- How does it compare to burning fossil fuels for energy? The lesser-of-two-evils argument
Feel free to contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the No Waste website at http://nowaste.indiana.edu/