America's Waste in Numbers: Then and Now

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Graphics by Amanda Wills

Curbside recycling now serves about half of the U.S. population, but that wasn’t the case in 1970 when very few cities offered these programs. In order to recycle, most residents had to transport recyclables to drop-off centers, which severely limited participation. The U.S. recycling rate in 1970 was 6.6 percent, compared to a 33.8 percent national recovery rate in 2009, according to the most recent EPA data available.

So, we recycled less, but we produced less waste, right? Well, yes and no.

While overall waste generation has more than doubled since 1970, our use of some materials – like glass and ferrous metals – has decreased or stayed about the same. Paper and paperboard were the most-recycled materials in 1970 and still are today. But recovery stats for some other recyclables may surprise you.

Paper

Paper made up 28 percent of the waste stream in 2009 and 36.6 percent in 1970, meaning the material has a long history of being the No. 1 material that Americans throw away.

Infographic design: Amanda Wills, Earth911

We may use a lot of paper here in the states, but paper recycling is far less complex than processing some other materials – meaning recovery rates have always been high as well.

More than 62 percent of paper used in 2009 was recycled, according to the EPA. About 15 percent of paper was recycled back in the good old days, which may not sound like much but significantly outnumbers other materials recycled at that time.

When recycling was in its early years, the industry usually used recovered paper to produce new paper and paperboard products here in the states. Since then, recovered paper has become what the EPA called a “global commodity.”

The U.S. currently uses about 65 percent of its recovered paper to make new products at home, while exporting an estimated 35 percent overseas, the EPA said.

Aluminum

Aluminum was not widely used in 1970. Most beverages that are now packaged in aluminum cans were served in glass bottles and metals like steel preceded aluminum in many other applications. In total, aluminum generated in the waste stream has doubled since 1970, according to the EPA.

Infographic design: Amanda Wills, Earth911

While cans weren’t as commonplace in 1970, the decade marked the start of aluminum recycling. In the absence of curbside, drop-off and buy-back centers were created to keep cans out of landfills. Similar to today, residents brought cans to a buy-back center and were given a cent or two for each can recycled.

Americans managed to recover about 10,000 tons of aluminum in 1970 through drop-off locations, which amounted to a meager 1.3 percent recycling rate. In 2010, aluminum can recycling hit a whopping 58.1 percent rate, according to the Aluminum Association.

Aluminum was and is most commonly used to make new cans. Creating cans from recovered aluminum requires 95 percent less energy compared to using virgin materials, making it very economically attractive. The total recycled content of cans made today in the U.S. is about 68 percent – the highest of any other beverage container.

Plastic

Over the years, plastic has become one of the most common materials used in packaging. Many Americans have become so used to plastic that it can be tough to imagine a world without it. But less than 40 years ago, Americans hardly used plastic at all!

Infographic design: Amanda Wills, Earth911

Only 2.9 million tons of plastic were present in the waste stream in 1970, compared to a staggering 30 million tons in 2008, the EPA estimates.

Early recycling programs addressed more common materials like paper, glass and rubber, and plastic recycling was not included until 1980. In the early years of plastic recycling, recovery rates wallowed below 3 percent, but we’ve made strides since the millennium.

In 2008, 7.1 percent of all plastic generated in the U.S. was recycled. However, the recycling rates for some plastic types are much higher. For example, 28 percent of all PET bottles and 29 percent of all HDPE bottles were recycled in 2009, according to the EPA. And in a report released last week, PET bottle recycling topped out at 1.5 billion pounds in 2010.

Glass

Other than paper, glass was the most common packaging material used in 1970, and we actually used a lot more glass back then compared to recent years. When the EPA was created, glass made up 10.5 percent of the American waste stream, compared to 4.9 percent in 2008.

Infographic design: Amanda Wills, Earth911

While glass containers accounted for 80 percent of packaged soft drink sales, container manufacturers were hesitant to use recycled glass in new bottles prior to 1970, the EPA said. Companies worried that material quality would suffer and consumers would be hesitant to accept previously-used products.

As manufacturers warmed up to the idea of using recycled glass in packaging, recycling rates quickly increased. Only about one percent of glass used in 1970 was recycled but that number quadrupled a mere 10 years later. By 2008, 23.1 percent of glass was recycled.

Today, the demand for high-quality recovered glass in the container industry far outweighs available supply. About 90 percent of the 2.8 million tons of glass recycled in 2008 was used to create new bottles, jars and containers.

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