At least 70-75% of what we throw out every day is reusable, compostable, or recyclable. To reach zero waste, we need to follow the international zero waste hierarchy. Think of it in three sections: minimizing waste, sustainable handling of waste, and avoided waste management practices. Below is a breakdown of the materials we toss out annually in the US.
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Paper and Paperboard – 23%
The largest piece of the trash pie, we throw out 67 million tons of paper and cardboard every year. This is the most-recovered material in our waste stream (67% of the material weight currently recycled).
Food – 22%
Unsurprisingly, food is at the top of the list as well. However, there are a number of ways you can minimize your food waste! You can donate to local food kitchens, pay for a membership to pickup services like Compost Cab and Veteran Compost, or drop your greens at urban farms!
Plastics – 12%
There are over 1,000 types of plastic, and only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled. Nevertheless, some plastics can and should be recycled, such as PET (1), HDPE (2), and PP (5). White HDPE has the highest value per ton recovered ($1,000), which could provide new zero waste businesses a significant source of revenue.
Yard Trimmings – 12%
With food, organics make up a whole third of our waste stream. Yard trimmings (or browns) also can contribute to the production of compost.
Textiles, Rubber, and Leather – 9%
17 million tons of textiles are trashed every year, and 9 million tons of rubber and leather. However, just over 2.5 million tons (15%) of textiles and about 1.7 million tons of rubber and leather (18%) are recovered.
Metals – 9%
We recover 34% of metals, including steel, aluminum, and other nonferrous metals. But plenty of new businesses need to be created to maximize value. For example, the tops and bottoms of aluminum cans are a different alloy than the body of the can. So, melting the whole can down leads to a downcycled product instead of something upcycled.
Wood – 6%
There are plenty of ways to utilize wood waste, including urban farms, furniture, park benches, and art! Only 17% of the 18 million tons of annual wood waste produced (~3 million tons) is put back to work right now.
Glass – 4%
GRASS’s specialty! Glass is infinitely recyclable, but recovery is very low (25% nationwide). And that recovery rate is dubious, as a significant percentage of the glass recovered is downcycled into landfill cover or road construction.
For every ton of glass recycled, over a ton of natural resources are conserved. In fact, one ton of carbon is avoided for every six tons of recycled container glass used in glass manufacturing. Energy costs decrease 2-3% for every 10% of cullet (recovered glass) used in manufacturing new glass. Finally, recycling 1,000 tons of glass alone produces about eight jobs. This may not seem like many, but consider only one job is produced per 10,000 tons of materials incinerated, and only 4-6 jobs are produced per 10,000 tons of materials landfilled.
Other – 3%
And then there’s 4 million tons of stuff we have no reasonable and just way to handle. This is where redesigning products comes into play – creating products in a way that can provide recoverable materials. Until we implement extended producer responsibility policies across the economy, those miscellaneous materials are best placed in a stabilized landfill – a landfill with no organic materials that break down into methane and contribute to climate change.
Sources: Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2018 Fact Sheet (EPA), 50 States of Recycling (Eunomia)