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Slow Progress for Waste Reduction in America

by Heather Rogers, published

According to the Annenberg Learner, the United States generates approximately 230 million tons of trash per year and gaining. This averages out to about 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day. With many of the nation’s landfills reaching capacity, the problem of reducing waste in America is daily gaining importance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) explains that the United States currently sustains a 34% recycling rate for all municipal solid waste or trash produced. The recycling rate within the United States seems to be rising at a slow pace. In 2008, according to the EPA, the recycling rate was 33.2% and in 2009 it was only slightly higher, at 33.8%. Though the current rate may seem low it is a considerable jump from the recycling rate in 1980 which was a mere 10% of all trash produced. A more significant statistic however, might be the fact that in the same number of years, trash production in the United States has risen by more than 60%.

In its 2006 Annual Report, Waste Management concluded that, “The weighted average remaining landfill life for all of our owned or operated landfills is approximately 28 years." Controversy concerning this finding has arisen, arguing that new technologies will allow the capacity of landfills to greatly increase. The truth remains however, that the nation’s landfills have a finite capacity which will eventually be met.

In response to the growing amount of trash produced in the nation every year, companies and organizations are beginning to move toward higher sustainability and “no waste” practices. Zero Waste America, a non profit environmental organization is committed to educating the public about how to reduce waste. They state that no comprehensive and effective federal plan exists to help reduce waste and promote greater recycling rates. While seeking legislative reform in regards to waste disposal in the United States, Zero Waste America seeks to enforce change by educating individuals.

Companies such as Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, have jumped on the no waste bandwagon, announcing in 2008 that it planned to eliminate all waste by reducing, recycling or reusing, everything that comes into its 4,100 American stores by 2025. On the Walmart website their zero waste policy is explained stating, “Our vision is to reach a day where there are no dumpsters behind our stores and clubs, and no landfills containing our throwaways.” While this sounds like a noble enterprise, Walmart was hit last year with a lawsuit investigation, alleging that the company improperly handled and dumped hazardous waste outside its stores across California. Walmart settled for $27.6 million, shedding some doubt on its commitment to zero waste practices.

Reducing the amount of trash produced in the United States remains a slow battle. While the federal government fails to produce an effective plan to increase recycling rates and regulate the amount of trash generated there seems to be little hope that recycling will begin to increase at a faster rate.

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