Recycling Momentum Started Long Before America Recycles Day

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Waste Management employees help Ohlone College students in Newark, Calif. build an urban garden and soil laboratory on America Recycles Day, Tuesday, November 15, 2011. Photo: Waste Management

Written by Erika Aaron, community relations director, Waste Management

Fifteen years ago, America Recycles Day was created by the National Recycling Coalition to educate people about and encourage recycling.

Since then, America has made vast improvements in recycling – something we can truly be proud of. As of 2010, the most recent year for which we have data, America was recycling more than 34 percent of the waste we generate – an almost 10 percent improvement since the inaugural America Recycles day in 1997. That’s a lot of recycling! If you stacked up all the aluminum cans we recycled in 2010, they would be 123 million times higher than Disney’s Space Mountain.

Recycling Then

To what can we attribute this great improvement? Let’s take a look back:

Long before America Recycles Day, back before the country was even founded, Americans were recycling in small ways. For example, in 1690, the Rittenhouse Mill, one of America’s first paper mills was recycling old rags and paper to create new paper. The first major aluminum recycling plants were built in 1904 in Cleveland and Chicago, and during the Civil War, World War I and World War II, Americans collected valuable materials like rubber, paper and scrap metal to help the war efforts.

The popularity of recycling really began to take off in the early 1970s with the advent of curbside recycling. Curbside recycling – and many subsequent improvements in recycling technology – has really contributed to the increase in recycling in America, and it continues to grow. The EPA estimates that curbside recycling programs have increased 500 percent in the last five years.

READ: The History of Waste

All this growth in recycling helps not just the environment, but also the economy. According to the EPA, an estimated 103,000 jobs can be attributed to recycling in a variety of sectors.

Recycling Now

With new recycling technology and innovation, this growth in recycling shows no sign of slowing. For example, today there are more than 160 single-stream facilities and 500 single-stream collection programs in the U.S. More than 27 percent of Americans have access to single-stream recycling in residential areas. In many cities, single-stream recycling has improved recycling rates by almost 25 percent in its first year.

In addition to recycling bottles, cans and paper, Americans are also beginning to recycle the waste of the future: electronics. In 2009, there were more than 47 million computers, 27 million televisions and 141 million mobile devices that were considered “ready for end-of-life management” and only 25 percent of those products were recycled. Electronics manufacturers and waste management professionals are working to improve this rate by providing safe, convenient areas for Americans to recycle their electronics.

At Waste Management, for example, we have seven e-cycling facilities that are all certified by e-Stewards to maintain safe conditions for worker and environmental health. These facilities – and WM’s investment in new composting and other recycling innovations – are part of Waste Management’s overall goal to more than double the volume of recyclables that we manage by 2020.

Although these improvements in recycling technology continue to increase recycling, education and awareness of proper recycling is critical.

Educate yourself about what you can recycle in your local area by contacting your curbside waste pickup provider and consulting the recycling directory on Earth911. Commit to recycling more this month by taking the America Recycles Day pledge, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Be one of the nearly 20,000 people committed to learning more about recycling and reducing their waste.
Happy America Recycles Day!

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