Better resource use, less waste and more recycling. The United States has been on a 50-year journey toward those goals since passage of the first national law on waste disposal.World Environment Day, June 5, is a good time to look at the progress. The U.N.-sponsored event draws attention to planet-friendly practices, and the 2015 theme is “7 Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care.”
“Consuming with care means living within planetary boundaries to ensure a healthy future,” the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) declares. That ideal rests on one uncompromising fact: If growth, development and population continue at the current rate, human demand soon will far exceed Earth’s resources.
A 1965 federal law for the first time set nationwide U.S. standards for solid waste disposal. The 1976 U.S. Resource Conservation and Reclamation Act took a major leap forward by shifting from an end-of-pipeline approach to one based instead on pollution prevention, involving government authorities at all levels.
States, cities and towns have powers to develop their own approaches. Still, the concept of “integrated waste management” underlies all waste management policies. That means inclusion of these elements:
- Source reduction to prevent waste creation and encourage reuse.
- Recycling and composting to promote recovery over disposal.
- Landfilling and combustion, which provides safer disposal capacity.
The national recycling rate is almost 35 percent of all trash generated, although state waste policies vary widely. For example, 10 states have mandatory deposits on containers. You buy a beverage, pay a container deposit and get a refund for the empty.
Many cities and counties use mandatory recycling policies to better manage waste generated by dense urban populations. Collection rates for glass, metal and paper are high in cities such as Phoenix, New York, Seattle and San Francisco.
Beyond government actions, manufacturers are voluntarily using less and recovering more. Major automakers Ford and General Motors are both making great strides to minimize the waste generated as they build cars.
In the beverage industry, manufacturers have found they can make product containers with 25 percent less plastic than was used decades ago, resulting in a 114 million kilogram decrease of plastic per year in the waste stream.