The Past, Present and Future of Recycling

The Past – We’ve Come a Long Way!


Recycling has come a long way over the past few decades – in the US there wasn’t a single recycling program in place until 1973 (in The Hidden Past of Recycling you’ll read that the concept of recycling was widely used in the past, however only privately or individually). Now, there are over 8,000 programs in operation. The first ever curbside recycling program in Canada began in 1973, the program initially served 80,000 homes in the Toronto area and eventually curbside programs and recycling centers were all over the country.

While we’ve come a long way since the explosion of the environmental movement in the 1970s, our recycling programs still have a long way to go as a collective group. Keep reading and you’ll see how we currently reduce our waste today and how we can improve our recycling habits in the future.

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The Present – Strategies for Zero Waste

Recycling Blog

Currently the US recycles about one third of the municipal trash (waste generated in homes, schools and non-industrial businesses) and Canada recycles about 21 percent of what would otherwise end up in the solid waste stream. Here are some strategies you can do today that will immediately increase how much you recycle:

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Closing the Recycling Loop

Separating your trash from your recyclables is only one step in the recycling loop – in order to close the gap, manufacturers need to start making more products out of recycled material and consumers need to focus on buying these products. Creating merchandise from scratch is often very harsh and damaging to the environment, the more life that we can get out of a product made from post-consumer recycled content, the better!

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Compost, Compost, Compost!

The amount of organic waste that ends up in landfill or burned in an incinerator is a little alarming – 60 percent of household waste in the US is compostable but only 8 percent of Americans compost. Canada has done a fairly good job on the composting front – as of 2011, over half of Canadian households (61%) had participated in some form of composting. If you have a green thumb, composting is the way to go – you’ll never have a better looking garden in the summer!

And if you’re an enthusiastic early adapter to up-and-coming composting trends, be sure to take a look at The Humanure System, which you can guess from the name, involves recycling your poop—and no, it’s obviously not for everyone…

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Keep the Garbage Bucket as Empty as Possible

Recycling and composting are great ways to keep what’s going in the garbage to a minimum, but there are more ways to stem the garbage cans’ burly appetite. Pre-Cycling is a great way to reduce how much trash your house is sending to the curb – buying in bulk to reduce packaging, using reusable bags, having a refillable water bottle or coffee mug – these are just a few examples of how you can pre-cycle..

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The Future – Strategies to Boost Recycling Rates


While recycling has increased in North America, the amount of trash produced has increased as well. The amount of material recycled today equals the total amount of trash produced in 1960. While recycling programs are a continuing success, experts say in future we should focus on limiting the amount of trash we produce to begin with, doing so will help lower the amount of greenhouse gasses being released into the air.

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Updated and Expended Bottle Bills

Having a bottle bill in place is a very effective way to get people recycling. A bottle bill (or container deposit law), requires a refundable deposit on beverage containers ensuring they are returned for recycling. Ideally, every state should have a container deposit law, but unfortunately only 10 states have a bottle bill in place – many of which don’t include plastic bottles. If more states could enact and expand these laws, the amount of plastics ending up in landfills would drop drastically.

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Manage Electronic Waste

Technology is always changing, and with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and laptops over the past decade, it has meant an increase in the amount of electronic waste that is being produced. In 2011, the US generated 3.41 million tons of e-waste, of which only 850,000 tons were recycled – the rest ended up in landfills or incinerators, the toxic chemicals that electronic components are made from end up seeping into our soil or up in the atmosphere. Businesses that sell electronics are beginning to take responsibility for the amount of e-waste produced, offering trade in programs allowing them to recycle unwanted gadgets – some even give you some money back!

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Stop Using Plastic Bags

This ties back to pre-cycling, but the numbers on how much plastic bags are thrown out versus how many are recycled warrant its own section – 380 billion plastic bags are used a year in the US alone and less than 5 percent are recycled! Plastic made with PET (polyethylene terephthalate, in case you were wondering why we needed an acronym for it) do not biodegrade, they do break down in UV light (photo-degradation), but that can take 10-100 years. That’s if exposed to sunlight, and since most garbage is buried at a landfill, the whole process takes even longer.

Currently, less than 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled each year. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000—the recycled product can then be sold for only $32. We don’t claim to be the best mathematicians in the world, but we’re fairly confident we wouldn’t want to enter into the business of recycling plastic bags for profit.

Efforts are being done all over to get people to ditch the plastic bags, supermarkets offer reusable cloth bags and now charge you for plastic bags, and San Francisco has even flat out banned the distribution of plastic bags in the city. Fingers crossed that these measures are the beginning of the end of the dreaded plastic bag.

This should most certainly be enough information to get your started on your way to recycling stardom. Stay tuned and we’ll fill you in on the sensible, not-so-sensible and downright strange recycling trends that you’ll start to see in the coming years—including, of course, recycling your #1’s and 2’s.

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Matt Bradbury

Written by Matt Bradbury – Sustainability Research Analyst

Information provided to you by WIH Resource Group, Inc

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10 Shocking Facts About Your Garbage

It’s easy not to think about garbage. You throw away your empty cartons, bags, and cups, and once a week the trash collector comes and takes it all away. Out of sight, out of mind… except that it’s not really gone.

Most US garbage is simply relocated from your garbage can to a landfill or incinerator, both of which are fraught with problems:

  • Incinerators: Emit toxic dioxins, mercury, cadmium, and other particulate matter into the air, and convert waste into toxic ash (which is sometimes used to cover landfills).
  • Landfills: There are more than 3,000 active landfills, and 10,000-old landfills, in the US.1 While the number of landfills in the US has been decreasing in recent decades, they have, individually, been increasing in size.


Along with being a major source of methane emissions, landfills produce “leachate,” a toxic fluid composed of pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and more, which come from the compressed trash.

Although landfills are technically supposed to keep garbage dry and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater, the landfill liners are virtually guaranteed to degrade, tear, or crack eventually, allowing the toxins to escape directly into the environment.

10 Shocking Facts About Your Garbage

MSN compiled 10 facts about garbage that are likely to surprise you.2 You may never look at your trash the same way again…

  1. More Than 100 Tons of Waste for Every American: The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day. That’s 102 tons in a lifetime, more than any other populations on Earth.
  2. Bottled Water Is the “Grandfather of Wasteful Industries. Edward Humes, author of the book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” counts bottled water among the most wasteful of industries. In the US, Americans toss 60 million water bottles daily, which is nearly 700 each minute.
  3. Food Waste Is a Problem Too: Americans throw away 28 billion pounds of food a year, which is about 25 percent of the US food supply.
  4. Disposables Are a Drain: Ten percent of the world’s oil supply is used to make and ship disposable plastics – items like plastic utensils, plates, and cups that are used just one time and thrown away.
  5. Trash Is Expensive: Most communities spend more to deal with trash than they spend for schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries, and parks.
  6. Carpet Waste Alone Is Astounding: Americans throw away 5.7 million tons of carpet every year.
  7. Paper Waste Is a Shame: Americans waste 4.5 million tons of office paper a year. Ask yourself… do I really need to print that?
  8. Opting Out of Junk Mail Makes a Difference: According to Humes, the energy used to create and distribute junk mail in the US for one day could heat 250,000 homes. You can opt-out of junk mail by going to
  9. Too Many Toys: Only 4 percent of the world’s children live in the US, but Americans buy (and throw away) 40 percent of the world’s toys. Buy less toys, opt for second-hand versions, and pass down the toys you do purchase to others.
  10. Plastic Bags: On average, Americans use 500 plastic bags per capita each year. Such bags make up the second most common type of garbage found on beaches. Stash reusable shopping bags in your purse or car so you’re not tempted by plastic or paper.

Bottled Water: One of the Worst Offenders

US landfills contain about 2 million tons of discarded water bottles, each of which will take more than 1,000 years to biodegrade. Recycling is only possible for a small number of these bottles, because only PET bottles are recyclable. In all, only one out of five plastic bottles ever make it to a recycling bin.3

You might think re-using the bottle is an option, but commercial water bottles tend to wear down from repeated use, which can lead to bacterial growth in surface cracks inside the bottle. This risk is compounded if you fail to adequately wash the bottle between each use, using mild soap and warm water.

But even with washing, these microscopic hiding places may still allow pathogenic bacteria to linger. Perhaps more importantly, the plastic chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates lurk in plastic water bottles and can pose serious health hazards, especially to pregnant women and children.

Fortunately, the use of bottled water is one of the easiest habits to change. Simply put a filter on your tap and use a reusable glass water bottle to carry with you.

Why You Should Consider Ditching Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are so wasteful and polluting to the environment that many US cities have already banned them outright. For a succinct and entertaining introduction to the waste that is the plastic bag, I highly recommend the film “Bag It.”4

It is a truly eye-opening look to the vastness of the problem, and the immense waste that could be spared if more Americans toted a reusable bag with them to the grocery store. As their website reported:5

“In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million barrels of oil is used annually to make the plastic bags that Americans consume. The United States International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags were used in the US in 2009.

These bags, even when properly disposed of, are easily windblown and often wind up in waterways or on the landscape, becoming eyesores and degrading soil and water quality as they break down into toxic bits.”

On a worldwide scale, each year about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide. At over 1 million bags per minute, that’s a lot of plastic bags, of which billions end up as litter each year, contaminating oceans and other waterways.

Food Waste Is a Serious Issue

You might not think throwing a banana peel or apple core in your trash is a big deal, but organic waste is actually the second highest component of landfills in the US. Organic landfill waste has increased by 50 percent per capita since 1974, as illustrated in this infographic.6

One solution to this problem is to cut down on the amount of food you waste by planning your meals carefully (and shopping according), vacuum packing produce to help it last longer, eating leftovers and knowing when food is still safe to eat (versus when it’s actually spoiled).

Composting Can Help Reduce Organic Waste in Landfills

Another solution lies in creating a backyard compost pile. Composting food scraps recycles their nutrients and can reduce their ecological impact. It benefits soil, plants, and the greater environment, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. Compost can be created with yard trimmings and vegetable food waste, manure from grazing animals, egg shells, brown paper bags, and more.

This can be done on an individual or community-wide level. For instance, in California, The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency operates a regional compost program in which they accept yard trimmings and vegetative food discards that are placed in curbside containers by local residents.

The organic material is then converted into premium quality organic compost and mulches, along with recycled lumber, firewood, and biofuel used to generate electricity. Since 1993, 1.6 million tons of yard and wood debris have been converted into these beneficial products.

Sonoma Compost, which operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, estimates that nearly 1.5 million tons of yard and wood trimmings have been diverted from landfills since 1993 as a result of the program.7

The Consequences of Living in a ‘Throwaway’ Society

Your parents and grandparents likely used products in reusable, recyclable, or degradable containers made from glass, metals, and paper. But today, discarded plastics and other waste are circling the globe at a significant human and environmental cost. It’s a problem of convenience – choosing a plastic disposable water bottle instead of using a reusable glass container, for instance – as well as one of overconsumption.

Even durable items like electronics, toys, and clothes are often regarded as “throwaway” products that we use for a short period and quickly replace – often without recycling, donating, or re-using them for another purpose.

Of course, you are living in a society that makes you feel behind if you do not buy the latest model of this or that, or update your wardrobe with the latest fashions. We’re also increasingly living on the go, where food in throwaway packages is by far the rule rather than the exception.

Contrast that to a couple of generations ago when frugality and resourcefulness were highly valued, and food came fresh from the farm, butcher shop, or baker, and you begin to see where the real problems with excess waste are springing from. The sheer amount of waste that is generated needlessly on any given day is quite mind-boggling. For instance, according to the Clean Air Council:8

  • The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
  • Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
  • The estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards sold each year in the US could fill a football field 10 stories high.
  • Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, an extra million tons of waste is generated each week.
  • 38,000 miles of ribbon are thrown away each year, enough to tie a bow around the Earth.

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!

You’ve probably heard of The Three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Committing this into practice in your home can significantly reduce the amount of waste your family generates while also saving you money. You can do your part by taking the following action steps that reduce your plastic consumption and generation of waste, which will benefit your health as well as the environment.

Reduce your plastic use: If at all possible seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Here are a few ideas… Use reusable shopping bags for groceries. Bring your own mug for coffee and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles instead of buying bottled water. Store foods in the freezer in glass mason jars as opposed to plastic bags. Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning. Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can. These are just a few ideas — I’m sure you can think of more. Recycle/Repurpose what you can: Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, especially ones that are not available in anything other than plastic. This includes giving your clothes or gently used household items to charities and frequenting second-hand stores instead of buying new. Make use of online sites like that allow you to give products you no longer need away to others instead of throwing them away. Choose reusable over single-use: This includes non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, glass bottles for your milk, cloth grocery bags, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, an old t-shirt or rags in lieu of paper towels, and so on.
Compost your food scraps and yard waste: A simple bin in your backyard can greatly cut down on your landfill contributions while rewarding you with a natural fertilizer for your soil. Support legislation: Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community; take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood. Be innovative: If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.
Assist recovery: Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products, and participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.

Bob Wallace, MBA is the Founder and a Principal of WIH Resource Group, Inc. and has over 27 years of experience in waste and recycling collections programs management, transportation / logistics operations, alternative fuels (CNG, LPG, RNG, LNG & biodiesel), Fleet Management, Operational Performance Assessments (OPAs), Waste-by-Rail programs, recycling / solid waste operations, transfer stations, landfills, planning and development. Mr. Wallace has extensive experience in working with clients in both the private and public sectors. Prior to WIH Resource Group, Mr. Wallace served as the Director of Transportation & Logistics for Waste Management, the largest provider of waste management and recycling services in North America. He can be reached at or 480.241.9994. For more information visit

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