Waste production multiplied tenfold over the last century and will likely double again by 2025. Half or less of that waste is generated at the household level. Though the mix varies widely from place to place, in high-income countries paper, plastic, glass, and metal comprise more than 50 percent of the waste stream—all prime candidates for recycling.
Recycling can reduce emissions because producing new products from recovered materials often saves energy. Forging recycled aluminum products, for example, uses 95 percent less energy than creating them from virgin materials.
Managing household waste tends to be the responsibility of city governments, or of informal waste collection in lower-income cities. Leading cities achieve recycling rates of 65 percent or more. Effective strategies go beyond raising public awareness and include:
- fees for landfill waste, while recycling and composting are free;
- redeemable deposits paid at purchase (from bottles to electronics); and
- programs that gather funds from manufacturers to cover recycling costs.
Collection, transport, and processing are, for the time being, largely powered by fossil fuels. Even still, recycling remains an effective approach to managing waste while addressing emissions. It also reduces resource extraction, minimizes other pollutants, and creates jobs.
Waste production [growth]: Hoornweg, Daniel, Perinaz Bhada-Tata, and Chris Kennedy. “Waste Production Must Peak This Century.” Nature, 502 (2013): 615-617.
waste…generated at the household level: Hoornweg et al, “Peak.”
waste stream…candidates for recycling: Hoornweg et al, “Peak.”
recycled aluminum products: Hoornweg et al, “Peak.”
recycling rates of…cities: UN HABITAT. Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities. London and Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2010.
Nigeria’s Wecyclers: Cathcart-Keays, Athlyn. “‘It’s Money Lying in the Streets’: Meet the Woman Transforming Recycling in Lagos.” The Guardian. October 21, 2015.
Pay-as-you-throw…San Francisco: Goldstein, James and Christi Electris. More Jobs, Less Pollution: Growing the Recycling Economy in the U.S. Boston: Tellus Institute, 2011.
single-stream recycling: Davis, Aaron C. “American Recycling is Stalling, and the Big Blue Bin is One Reason Why.” Washington Post. June 20, 2015.
newspaper volumes have plunged: Gunther, Marc. “Can Large Companies Lead the Low-Carbon Revolution?” Yale Environment 360. February 9, 2016.
Green Dot…labeling system: Winter, Debra. “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle.” The Atlantic. December 4, 2015.
Targets…such as the European Union’s: European Commission. “Closing the Loop: Commission Adopts Ambitious New Circular Economy Package to Boost Competitiveness, Create Jobs and Generate Sustainable Growth.” Press release, Brussels, December 2, 2015; Collins, Sarah. “EU Struggling with Household Recycling Targets.” Euranet Plus News Agency. January 27, 2017.