In 2012 Americans generated 251 million tons of trash.  Of that 251 million we composted and recycled 87 million tons of it.  The 87 million tons gives us a recycle/compost percentage of around 34.5 % while the average in Europe is around 39 %.  So while we aren't very far behind the rest of the western world we do have a lot of room for improvement.  

For example according to the EPA,[1]

  • Paper and paper products account for 27% of municipal solid waste
  • Yard trimmings and food waste are 28% of municipal solid waste
  • Plastics are at 13%
  • Metals compromise 9%
  • Rubber, leather, textiles compromise 9%
  • Wood is at 6%
  • Glass is at 5%

What I get from those percentages is that with a some leeway we could say that anywhere from 80-90% of everything we throw away in our daily lives could be recycled or composted.  So the question that must be asked is

Why is our recycling/composting percentage only at 34.5%?

Trash BurialCredit: personal photoWell the answer is twofold, first you have that fact that our "waste disposal" system is simply not set up to handle separating, recycling and composting all the diverse materials that come from households every day.  It is simpler and cheaper for them to dig a big hole and bury it all without actually taking the time to separate and recycle everything we can.  

The second part is a cultural issue that we have in the western world.  We are a use it and throw it society and we have been that way for many years.  Its a hard mentality to break when we have very few options and examples to show us another way of doing things.

What can be done?

To make a change in our countries waste management would take a monumental effort on the part of citizens everywhere.  They would have to demand the options of recycling and composting everything that they could in order to minimize the waste that would need to be buried.  But the main hurdle we would have to get over would be the economics of it.  You have to have a high turnover to make recycling profitable with large amounts of materials coming through on a daily basis.   That's not feasible for smaller communities or groups to be able to do.  

There is much you can do on a personal level right in your own home.  To cut down on waste generated in your home try to buy in bulk and buy products in compostable or recyclable containers.  Using cloth grocery bags and tin or glass containers for leftover food storage would be a great idea as well since they are long lasting, durable and 100% recyclable.  

The biggest thing you can do is to compost your own food and fiber scraps right on your property.  This isn't as difficult as some people think it is and with a large enough bin and a little knowledge you can successfully and safely compost a lot of things.  If you remember from list up above over 50% of all municipal solid waste is material like paper, cardboard, yard trimming, and food waste which can be easily taken care of at the house. 

Even if you don't have a garden you can still use the compost as a lawn or tree fertilizer around your house which they will thank you for.

We can all do more to cut down on how much waste we generate.  Whether you buy in bulk, grown your own food, or wear your clothes to rags there is always something that can be done.  So take a look around your house and figure out how you can compost, recycle and reduce your waste stream as much as possible.  If everyone that could, composted and recycled their food and fiber waste we could cut the waste stream down significantly which would save space in our landfills.