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In 1973, not a single curbside recycling program existed in the United States. Today, there are more than 8,000 in operation throughout the country. The United States now recycles one third of its municipal waste -- trash we generate in our homes, schools and non-industrial businesses -- compared to just 6 percent in 1960. But despite the growing popularity of recycling, it's being outpaced by the volume of garbage we produce.

The amount of material we recycle today -- 81 million tons a year -- equals the total quantity of garbage the United States produced in 1960. Today, Americans create 250 million tons of municipal waste in a year, and about 15 billion tons a year of all other types of industrial wastes. Experts say that continuing to increase our recycling rates will help pull us out of the garbage heap and reduce global warming emissions. And that a necessary counterpart to that strategy is to cut down on the waste we produce in the first place.

Reduce and Reuse: Strategies for Zero Waste

Recycling is just one step in a full loop of practices that, together, will reduce the amount of waste going to landfills and cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Successful recycling involves more than bundling up newspapers and collecting bottles. To close the recycling loop, manufacturers should use recycled materials to make their products, and consumers should buy goods made from post-consumer recycled content. The more we increase demand for products made with recycled materials instead of virgin materials, the more successful recycling will be at diverting waste from landfills, saving natural resources and curbing global warming.

Here are some other ways to work towards zero waste:

Keep organics and recyclables out of landfills and incinerators
More than 60 percent of household waste in the United States is recyclable or compostable. But Americans only compost 8 percent of their waste. Composting prepares organic waste like leftover food and lawn trimmings for reuse as fertilizer instead of leaving it to decompose in landfills or to combust in incinerators, which emit greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. Creating more municipal composting programs would boost composting rates. Such programs exist in only a few cities, and they're outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by curbside recycling programs.

Put trash cans on diets
Much of the waste we dump in our trash cans doesn't need to be there. Cutting back on product packaging, promoting reusable bags over paper and plastic, using sponges instead of paper towels, and favoring mugs or glasses over disposable containers are just a few ways to reduce waste.

Recycle: Strategies to Boost Rates and Curb Global Warming

Just as driving our cars and heating our homes creates greenhouse gas emissions, so does throwing away our waste. Decomposing garbage in landfills releases one fourth of all methane emissions in the United States: methane is a global warming pollutant 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Trash incinerators emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And throwing away products rather than reusing or recycling them often means burning more fossil fuels to strip virgin timber and other raw materials from the earth. If we were to increase our recycling rate from the current 32.5 percent to 35 percent, the effect on greenhouse gas emissions would be comparable to removing a million passenger cars from our roads.

Here are just a few ways that we could boost our recycling rates, cut down on global warming pollution and protect habitat to preserve biodiversity:

Manage electronic waste
Discarded electronics -- old computers, broken cell phones, obsolete television sets -- form the fastest-growing element of our waste stream. Americans threw out 2 million tons of tech trash in 2005 and only recycled about 380,000 tons. Nine states have laws in place that require the recycling of electronics, and several other states are working on new e-waste laws. NRDC supports laws that put the responsibility on manufacturers to recycle their used products, and for designing less toxic, more recyclable gadgets in the first place.

Expand bottle bills
In 2005, 2 million tons of plastic bottles in the United States ended up in the trash instead of in recycling bins. State container deposit laws, known as "bottle bills", are long overdue for an upgrade. Container deposit laws have proven to be the most effective approach to collecting bottles and cans. But right now, only 11 states have bottle bills, and most of them include only beer and soda bottles -- not water bottles, which accounted for 14 percent of bottled beverages in 2005. A national bill with a higher deposit would give a huge boost to our bottle recycling rates.

Ditch plastic bags
According to the EPA, the United States consumes about 380 billion plastic bags a year and recycles less than 5 percent of them. Getting in the habit of reusing shopping bags -- as is common in some other countries -- could reduce that number significantly and prevent billions of plastic bags from ending up in landfills (not to mention in the ocean, on trees and floating by your window).

A move is afoot to address the plastic problem. The city of San Francisco banned the distribution of plastic bags by grocery stores in 2007, and other stores around the country are creating incentives for shoppers to reduce plastic bag use, such as offering cash back for reused bags, selling branded reusable bags and installing in-store bag drop-off stations to encourage reuse.

last revised 3/28/2008

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