Recycling Rates – Progress, Yet Opportunities For Improvement

In 1960, the US generated 88.1 million tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). In 2008 (latest figures available from the EPA), the US generated 250 million tons of MSW. The full EPA report is available at http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2008rpt.pdf. Now, that sounds bad, but the good news is that in 1960, we recycled less than 10% of that 88.1 million tons. In 2008, we recycled over 33% of the 250 million tons. The amount we sent to the landfill in 1960 was over 90% of the MSW. In 2008, only 54% of the MSW went to the landfill, with recycling accounting for 35% of the 250 million tons generated. The remaining 19% not sent to the landfill was either combusted for fuel or was composted.

How much did HDPE Plastics contribute towards recycling efforts in 2008?

For HDPE plastics in particular, we don’t have the data separated out since 1960, but for 2008, we do have the following figures from the EPA’s data provided at http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/msw2008data.pdf. In this data in Table 7, we see that HDPE plastic resins accounted for 5,350 thousand tons of the MSW generated in the US for 2008, of which 570 thousand tons of that was recovered to avoid the landfill, a 10.7% capture rate. In 1960, there was no measurable amount of HDPE recovered, but it does show that HDPE recovery programs need to be strengthened considerably, considering how other materials have a much higher recovery rate.

To break this data down further:

  • 780 thousand tons of HDPE plastics was generated as durable good with no recovery
  • 680 thousand tons were generated as trash bags with no recovery
  • 750 thousand tons were generated as natural bottles with 220 thousand tons recovered
  • 1,310 thousand tons were generated a other types of HDPE containers, with 260 thousand tons recovered
  • 550 thousand tons generated as bags, sacks & wraps with 60 thousand tons recovered
  • 1,280 thousand tons generated as other plastics packaging with 30 thousand tons recovered

By recycling more we help with:

  • Reducing methane emissions from landfills.
  • Reducing emissions from incinerators.
  • Reducing emissions from energy consumption.
  • Increasing storage of carbon in trees.

There is definitely lots of opportunity for avoiding the landfill, if programs were better publicized and more recovery was mandated/managed in an effective manner.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts. Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

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