Sustainable Development and the Recycling Problem

If you live in certain parts of the country – San Francisco, perhaps, or parts of New York City – there’s this idea that everyone, absolutely everyone, recycles. Yet a recent trip to Bloomington, Indiana in which the location that I stayed only recycled office paper and cardboard, I discovered this startling reality – that’s simply not true.

According to 2008 US EPA numbers, Americans on average generate 4.5 pounds of waste per day. We recycle or compost a mere 1.5 pounds of waste – or roughly 33%.

Thirty years of being harassed to reduce, reuse, recycle, encouraged to give a hoot and not pollute and cajoled to use it up, wear it out or do without, has us not only consuming more than ever but also developing a recycling rate that can be best described as tepid.

Although recycling can sometimes be problematic, overall recycling is a good thing. Our inability to rapidly increase our rate of recycling is problematic not only from a pure environmental perspective – Americans throw out the equivalent of 1500 aluminum cans per second despite the fact that aluminum is difficult to extract and refine and can be recycled an infinite number of times – but also from a practical perspective.

If after thirty years we can’t get municipalities and humans to recognize the importance of and the need for recycling in a way that allows for pragmatic follow through, we must re-evaluate our techniques. What are we doing wrong? What roadblocks are inhibiting our ability to reduce consumption and increase recycling? How can we do better?

These kinds of questions are important because our most pressing environmental issue, global climate change, is less concrete and harder to explain – we also don’t have thirty years to take action.