More than 80 percent of the world's garbage is produced in North America. Every person in the United States generates nearly two kilograms of trash per day. In contrast, the Japanese produce just slightly more than one kilogram per person each day, and in India, the daily, per capita rate is just over 0.5 kilogram.
Over the past decade, recycling advocates have made great strides in the United States, and last year, about 32 percent of the household waste in America was reused. But experts say much of the trash still going into America's landfills could be recycled.
Every day, dozens of trucks carrying thousands of kilograms of glass, paper, metal, and plastic trash pull into the recycling center in Athens, Georgia. In 1990, state lawmakers announced they wanted to reduce the amount of garbage going into Georgia's landfills by 25 percent. Many facilities in the state still haven't met that goal. But in Athens, home to the University of Georgia and its more than 30,000 students recycling has reduced the amount of garbage being thrown away by 37 percent.
One reason the recycling program in Athens has been so successful is that it's easy to participate. Unlike programs in many communities, the one in Athens doesn't require residents to separate newspapers from magazines, or plastic from metal and glass. It doesn't even require them to sort their glass according to its color. Karen Sabatini, an educational coordinator for the center, says when consumers are required to put some effort into recycling, they often just throw the stuff away. That's why the center hires people to do the separating for them.
"Right now, we're standing up on our paper sorting line, and as you can see below us, we have a big pile of mixed, residential paper," she says. "We've got cardboard, newspapers, magazines. Any kind of paper you can think of that folks put in their recycling bin. What happens is a bulldozer truck will push that onto a main conveyor system, which passes where we're standing now. And we're standing where the workers would stand. And as the paper comes past them, if they're in charge of grabbing, just say, a piece of newspaper off of the line, they have to pull it off and then throw it into a bin, either to the right or the left of them, and sort it accordingly."
Paper makes up about 40 percent of what's going into America's landfills and a good bit of it could be recycled. A lot of the plastic and metal being thrown away could also be reused. But Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, says recyclable items often get thrown into the trash, and end up in landfill, because people don't have any alternatives when they're at a sporting event, a concert, or even just walking down the street.
"Our culture in America has become not so home-based," she said. "We are away from home more. We eat away, we drink away from home more. The recycling infrastructure has not caught up with that. And so while we may be great recyclers at home, and we may be great recyclers at our work, the infrastructure for away from home is not developed, and it's dismal."
The National Recycling Coalition is working to create such an infrastructure at places like stadiums and train stations. But Kate Krebs says the events of September 11 complicated the organization's efforts, because now, officials in many cities are reluctant even to have trash cans in public places. The cans could be used to hide a bomb. Kate Krebs says there's also another challenge that recycling advocates face, and that is that many packages used to sell products in the United State have been rendered unrecyclable by marketing techniques.
"The marketing folks want different colors, different layers, to make the container capture a consumer's eye when it's on a shelf," says Ms. Krebs. "And then what happens is consumers will start purchasing that, they'll want to put it in their blue bin and have it taken away and recycled, but the glitter or the paint or the label that's been put on that product to capture point of purchase attention then becomes a real problem."
It's a problem, because special glues and dyes can ruin an entire batch of melted glass or plastic. Also, if a container's color is too unique, there won't be much of a market for recycled material in that color. That means it won't be worth it for a center like the one in Athens, Georgia, which depends on revenues from the sale of recycled materials, to accept those containers.
Kate Krebs says there are efforts by lawmakers in some states, such as California and Wisconsin, to require companies to take more responsibility for the "life" of their packaging. Countries like Germany and Japan already have such laws. But in the meantime, Ms. Krebs and her colleagues are encouraging American consumers not to buy products that come in packages that can't be easily recycled. The hope is that consumer demand will force manufacturers to stop needlessly contributing waste to America's landfills.