Every year, the United States generates an estimated 200 million tons of solid waste. Much of this waste falls under four main waste items -- yard trimmings, corrugated boxes, newspapers and glass containers. Most of the items in this group could be recycled. Instead, majority of them are simply disposed (Lober).
Currently, the residents of the United States recycle only 20% of their generated solid waste. This translates to 180 million tons of garbage being sent to landfills, which are growing fuller and scarcer every day. Recycling rates in the United States ranks among the lowest among industrialized nations (Bowden 44).
One of the chief causes of this high amount of solid waste and low recycling rates is the lack of a national legislated definition of recycling. Currently, recycling laws exist only on city and state levels, making recycling rates uneven across the country. Thus, many cities and states have no recycling programs, even though many types of solid waste -- such as yard trimmings -- are perfect candidates for recycling.
This paper thus proposes a two-pronged legislative law towards making recycling mandatory on a national level. First, companies and manufacturers should be required to use as much recyclable materials for their products as possible. This includes the product containers and wrappings, which are among the largest generators of solid waste.
Second, consumers should be required to separate recyclable material from their regular garbage. Cities should then create local recycling programs to take charge of the recyclable material of their residents.
By creating a national definition of recycling and making this program mandatory, the national government will greatly contribute to the reduction of solid waste and improve the recycling levels of the United States.
There are many important reasons to recycle products that can be reused. First, recycling allows people to conserve more natural resources such as trees that are used as sources of wood and paper. For example, it takes 17 pulp trees just to manufacture one ton of paper (Carless 173-174). Recycling used paper would help preserve these old-growth trees, allowing them to absorb carbon dioxide emissions, generate oxygen and help prevent soil erosion.
Recycling paper also saves other natural resources as well. For example, the process for manufacturing recycled paper only uses half the water required to produce paper from virgin pulp.
Despite their notorious difficulty in recycling, some forms of plastics such as PET have been successfully recycled into a variety of products. The PET is melted and spun into insulating fibers, which are used for duvets, sleeping bags and fleece jackets (Bowden 45).
Metallic wastes such as aluminum cans and tin are even better recycling candidates, because unlike paper, metals generally do not degrade during the recycling process. These materials could thus be recycled indefinitely.
One manufacturing company even found that cans from recycled aluminum can be made in half the time and one-tenth of the cost to mine and refine pure aluminum (Carless 174).
As in recycled paper, using recycled metals is also associated with saving other natural resources as well. This includes gasoline used by mining machinery. Manufacturing products from secondary, recycled materials also uses less energy than manufacturing from raw materials. Finally, decreasing the amount of mining also helps to preserve the beauty of the natural landscape.
Mandatory recycling programs will also help decrease pollution levels all over the country. The case of Japan illustrates the beneficial effects of strict national recycling laws. In 1995, the Japanese government instituted the Containers and Packaging Recycling law, which first defined recyclable products. The law then mandated that businesses should either recycle their packaging materials, either through their own plants or by paying a "recycling fee" to the Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association, a government-designated organization (JCPRA).
As a result, Japan's recycling rates are now much higher than the United States. An estimated 50% of solid wastes in Japan are recycled, while only 16% is sent to the landfills. In contrast, the United States sends up to 70% of its trash to landfills every year (Winston).
In the United States, recycling programs are run on a city and sometimes, state level. However, there is no nation-wide legislation similar to Japan's recycling law, which explicitly states which material is recyclable and designates an organization to take charge of the nation's recycling needs.
If these scattered city and state recycling programs are already resulting in a 20% recycling rate, making recycling mandatory throughout the country can only result in an increase in recycling rates.
It is important to note, however, that many industries may have difficulty in recycling its own material waste. Towards this, the United States could follow the Japanese approach of designating government or private bodies to take charge of recycling and asking companies to pay a "recycling fee." Such costs could be easily offset by providing tax incentives to companies that adopt environmentally conscious policies.
On the part of the consumers, many cities such as Springfield, Massachusetts have ordinances requiring consumers to recycle. Springfield ordinances mandate that businesses haul their own recyclables to a private recycler to the city recycling services. In 2001, the city collected 64.3 tons of cardboard and paper that would have otherwise been discarded (Padgett).
In another example, the New York City Sanitation Department is also in charge of collecting recyclable material such as glass, metal and plastics. Plans are now underway to institute an independent recycling authority, which would manage the recycling program. Under this plan, recycling centers would be set up throughout the city, where residents can redeem recyclable goods (Cardwell).
The government and public support for these programs already indicates a favorable atmosphere for recycling programs. Already, these citywide programs are showing a success in increasing recycling rates and reducing the amount of solid waste. The next step is thus to implement these on a wider scale, by making such programs mandatory across the country.
Despite the environmental benefits of recycling, most consumers, businesses and manufacturers will remain more concerned with the costs of recycling. The good news, however, is that economic figures show that recycling is a more cost-effective method of handling waste than landfill alternatives.
The Japanese example again bears this out. In the case of large appliances, for example, the Japanese government requires manufacturers to use recycled parts on products such as washing machines, televisions and air conditioners. Consumers are then required to pay a fee to have their used appliances carted away and recycled. This fee is often included in the price of a new model of appliance. The object of the law is to promote the recycling of useful parts and to reduce the amount of unwanted household appliances in the landfills (Winston).
While the up-front costs seem to contradict cost-effective measures, economic experts point out that the alternative - the use of landfills - is much more damaging economically.
First, unlike landfills, recycled materials generate their own revenue stream. Companies that use recycled material such as paper and aluminum invariably incur less manufacturing and energy costs. These savings could eventually be passed on to the consumer, in the form of cheaper prices.
Second, the use of landfills also creates environmental and economic problems, which also take their toll on a city or state's budget. After all, landfills are more than mere holes in the ground for garbage. These landfills should be lined with geomembranes, which need to be properly installed and maintained to prevent leaks.
Such landfill liner technology is very expensive and often ineffective. An industry report, for example, shows that despite supervision and maintenance, many landfill liners still leaked (Hershkowitz 81-83).
Aside from these leaks, landfills are also a source of hazardous air emissions. These emissions cause a bevy of health problems, increasing the public and private health-related expenditures. Furthermore, leaching from landfills contaminates ground water supplies, further threatening public health (Hershkowitz 81).
Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste maintains that a well-run curbside recycling program costs from $50 to $150 per ton of materials collected. In contrast, normal trash disposal costs $70 to more than $250 per ton. On a collection level alone, a well-managed recycling program already proves to be the more cost-effective alternative (Hershkowitz 83).
In New York City, where recycling is mandatory, the City Council is now looking into ways to make recycling more cost-effective. By creating a waste prevention bureau separate from the Sanitation Department, the council expects to trim $38.4 million from the current curbside recycling program, as well as $5 million in overhead and administrative costs. Much of this proposed recycling agency's $160.5 million budget would be generated from the sales of the collected paper, as well as from unclaimed bottle and can deposits (Cardwell). In essence, this recycling plan would fulfill three major goals. It would finance its own expenses, generate further revenue and significantly reduce the amount of solid waste by reusing recyclable material.
Critics of recycling
Despite the proven economic and environmental benefits of recycling,…