Recycling: Is it really like motherhood and apple pie?

In our pre industrial world recycling was an essential part of living and livelihoods. During WWII it was the patriotic thing to do. For the post-war nuclear family it was an inconvenience and certainly indicative of a family that was behind the times. In our Earth Day era of volatile energy and commodity prices, recycling has reemerged and has attained an ethical value rivaling that of motherhood and apple pie. In fact, its stature in our society has been so elevated that it is valued for itself rather than a means toward valuable ends — namely, energy efficiency, resource conservation and greenhouse gas mitigation. Despite its iconic stature in our nation, we have done far less than other countries in realizing its benefits.

In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, recycling rates are double those in the U.S. What is left after recycling is processed for energy recovery in “Energy-from-Waste” facilities where steam is created from the combusted material and used for heating and cooling and electricity generation. The remainder, often less than 10 percent of the waste stream, is discarded in landfills.

Throughout Europe, countries are on a path towards these levels. How are they bringing this goal within reach? They have set in place several directives under the aegis of the European Union with two of them being primarily responsible for changes in waste management practices. First, a directive on packaging, that aims to reduce packaging and encourage its recycling and energy recovery. Second, a directive on landfills that seeks to reduce the biodegradable waste going to landfills by 65 percent before 2020. The result has been a continuous climb in recycling and energy recovery from waste since the mid 1990s from 40 percent to 60 percent today. In contrast, the U.S. recycles and recovers energy from only 36 percent of its waste.

Does it really matter that the U.S. is rudderless in its journey towards a more sustainable solid waste management system? Let’s look at the opportunity for energy production and conservation that the U.S. forgoes. If we had a waste system akin to the best in Europe in 2008, that is 65 percent recycling, 25 percent energy recovery, and 10 percent to landfills, we would have recovered and conserved nearly 700 thousand gigawatt-hours of energy. This is equivalent to the energy in roughly 3.6 billion barrels of oil, or over 11 percent of our 2008 crude oil imports. How much greenhouse gas would we have avoided? The equivalent of taking 56 coal-fired power plants offline — 71 million metric tons of carbon emissions avoided.

What if we sought to bring the entire world to the highest standards of the EU for waste recycling and energy recovery? Last December we presented a paper in the lead-up to the Copenhagen Climate meetings that documented that this scenario can mitigate over 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases per year. That is the equivalent of doubling the number of nuclear power plants operating today or adding 2 million one megawatt wind machines to our energy mix. Now that’s up there with motherhood and apple pie.

Paul Gilman joined Covanta in 2008 as Covanta Energy’s first senior vice president and Chief Sustainability Officer. He is responsible for Covanta’s safety, health and environmental compliance programs, and for sustainability initiatives that further reducing Covanta’s environmental impact while increasing the use of its technologies.