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By the GrassRoots Recycling Network

Fhat goes into garbage cans is just the tip of a giant mountain of wasted resources, and while Americans are setting recycling records, product and packaging waste is also increasing steadily. These are among the key findings of a new study released in late March by the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN).

"By practicing the 3 R's -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- Americans kept 28 percent of municipal refuse out of landfills and incinerators in 1997,

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nearly triple the recycling rate in 1980," said Rick Best, president of GRRN.

"Paper recycled by Americans since 1990 saved more than 3 billion trees, the equivalent of a forest 16 times the size of Yosemite National Park," said Best. "Many cutting edge businesses and communities are already cutting their waste in half." On the other hand, he explained, "we spent $43.5 billion on garbage disposal last year, burying or burning vast amounts of resources that could be reused or recycled."

The GRRN report, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, provides a comprehensive review of progress in recycling as well as of the environmental impacts of the mountain of resources still being wasted.

Recycling experts and local officials responsible for waste management are united in their view that much more can and must be done to reduce the ever-growing mountain of trash.

"Unfortunately, our recycling efforts nationally have been one step forward, one step back," explains Brenda Platt, lead author of the report and Director of Materials Recovery at the Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). The Institute researched and wrote the report for GRRN.

"More than 9,300 communities provided curbside recycling by 1998, compared to a handful in the 1970s. An estimated 150 million Americans recycle,"

"Unfortunately, our recycling efforts nationally have been one step forward, one step back."

Platt said. "While recycling increased, wasting in landfills and incinerators is much greater and increased by 4.4 million tons between 1996 and 1997."

The full environmental impact of this growing consumer waste cannot be understood without considering the entire process of production and consumption. "For every garbage can placed at the curb, the equivalent of another 71 garbage cans worth of waste is created in mining, logging, agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and the industrial processes converting raw materials into finished products and packaging," according to GRRN Network Coordinator Bill Sheehan.

Benefits of Recycling

"One of the key findings of our research is that the benefits of recycling are also far greater than previously thought and go far beyond keeping materials from landfill disposal or incineration," explains Dr. Neil Seldman, co-author of the report and president of the ILSR.

Key benefits of recycling identified in the report include:

• Reducing greenhouse gases. Reaching a 35 percent recycling rate and reducing waste to 1990 levels would eliminate 11.4 million metric tons of carbon equivalent (MTCE). This would reduce greenhouse emissions as much as taking nearly 7 million cars off the road.

• Reducing reliance on virgin resources. This protects habitats and eliminates pollution from extracting resources, processing and manufacturing. Producing aluminum from bauxite is highly energy intensive and generates a ton of caustic waste for every ton of bauxite mined. Recovering the more than 45 billion aluminum cans wasted in 1998 in the U.S. would conserve enough energy to supply the electricity needed by the city of Atlanta for two years.

• Creating sustainable jobs and businesses. A survey by ten northeastern states found that industries manufacturing with recycled materials employ 103,413 people in the region. North Carolina recycling industries employ over 8,700 people. California is expected to create 45,000 recycling jobs when it reaches its 50 percent waste reduction and recycling goal.

Barriers to Recycling

Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 identifies several factors adversely affecting recycling and waste reduction, including:

• Corporations backing away from commitments to use recycled materials in products and packaging.

• Subsidies for virgin resource extraction and waste disposal which put recycling at a competitive disadvantage, including $2.6 billion annually in federal taxpayer subsidies and billions more spent by local governments supporting landfills and incinerators.

• Products and packaging are often made with little regard for recycling and waste prevention. For example, new plastic beverage containers are made with colored resins or labels and caps making recycling technically more difficult and expensive.

Los Angeles City Council Member Ruth Galanter, speaking at a press conference when the report was released, explained the impacts of all this on communities. "Local governments and taxpayers are being confronted with wasteful new packaging which costs more to recycle. The trend toward plastics is a real problem because the cost of collecting and recycling the containers is often more than what companies pay us for the plastic, and our taxpayers end up with the bill."

A Bright Future for Reducing Waste

Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 documents that many businesses and communities are setting records in recycling and waste reduction. "Fifteen years ago, 25 percent recycling was thought to be the limit ... to reach higher would mean astronomical costs," said ILSR's Platt. "Today we know otherwise. Hundreds of businesses and communities have cut their waste in half and saved money."

GRRN lays out a new approach based upon eliminating rather than managing waste. "Zero waste is our goal. Cutting edge businesses and communities are already pursuing innovative 'zero waste' strategies," said GRRN’s Sheehan.

"We have only scratched the surface of recycling's potential," says consultant Joan Edwards, who has served as the director of recycling programs for both the cities of Los Angeles and New York.

GRRN's report shows that keys to successful waste reduction and recycling are setting public policy goals reinforced by mandates and/or market-based incentives.

Copies of Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000 are available for $25.00 postpaid. For details on purchasing the report, visit GRRN online at

The GrassRoots Recycling Network is network of recycling and community-based activists who advocate policies and practices to achieve zero waste, to end corporate welfare for waste, and to create sustainable jobs from discards. GRRN's report and programs are funded by the Turner Foundation, the Merck Family Fund, The Florence and John Schumann Foundation, and individual gifts.

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