Did you know that electronic waste, known as e-waste, is the most rapidly growing waste stream in the United States?
FOR MORE THAN 1,000 years, people have recycled by saving and reusing certain materials. Recycling as a formal effort of collecting and processing metals and papers did not start until the Industrial Revolution. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association based in Washington, D.C., traces its origins to an organization started in 1913.
EARLY CURBSIDE recycling programs in the United States required consumers to sort materials. The 1990s brought a system called single-stream recycling, which made sorting unnecessary. In these single-stream systems, recyclables are loaded together, then sorted at material-recovery facilities using magnets, infrared readers, conveyor belts, and screens. Single-stream recycling reduces the cost of collection and appears to increase participation rates.
ELECTRONICS WASTE, known as e-waste, is the most rapidly growing waste stream in the United States. Although e-waste makes up only 2 percent of the trash in U.S. landfills, it accounts for 70 percent of overall toxic waste. The world disposes of 20 million to 50 million metric tons of e-waste each year and recycles only one-eighth of it. Global e-waste is projected to increase by 33 percent over the next three years. In 2012, China and the United States accounted for about half the world’s total e-waste.
THE INSTITUTE OF SCRAP RECYCLING INDUSTRIES estimates that a metric ton of electronic scrap from personal computers contains more gold than can be extracted from 17 tons of gold ore. In 2011, the U.S. electronics recycling industry processed more than 4.4 million tons of equipment. More than 70 percent of the collected material is manufactured into scrap steel, aluminum, copper, lead, plastics, and glass. The electronics recycling industry employs 45,000 people full time in the United States.
FERROUS (IRON AND STEEL) scrap is the most commonly recycled material in the world. Ferrous scrap, processed into commodity-grade material, accounts for more than 60 percent of all raw steel produced in the United States. In 2012, the United States exported more than 20 million metric tons of ferrous scrap, with a value of over $9 billion, to 90 countries. Recycling a single car can save 2,500 pounds of iron ore and 1,400 pounds of coal. The United States recycled almost 12 million cars in 2011, supplying more than 15 million tons of shredded scrap.
MORE THAN HALF (53.6 percent) of all U.S. municipal solid waste in 2011 ended up in landfills. That’s a steep decline from 1980, when 88.6 percent went to landfills. In 2011, more than 3.6 million tons of municipal solid waste came from 20 billion disposable diapers.
THE ENERGY SAVED by recycling a glass bottle can power a computer for half an hour. The energy saved by recycling an aluminum can will power a TV for two hours. – Paul Engleman