WV Water PicJanuary’s chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River left us with many valuable lessons regarding the fragility of our water supplies.  It also provided a valuable lesson regarding the inadequacies of current recycling efforts in the US — and the need to expand recycling at multiple levels.  Initially, the chemical spill resulted in the closure of a water treatment processing facility which left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians in the Charleston region without water for days.  Water was trucked in as a stopgap measure, and according to a Wall Street Journal article by Valerie Bauerlein, residents impacted by the chemical spill consumed about 20 million bottles of water in the aftermath.  Incredibly, only 3 million of those bottles were recycled, meaning that 17 million (85 percent) went to landfills!

Bauerlein capably points out many of the challenges that limit recycling in rural areas — including costs associated with distance and lack of route density, costs associated with monitoring and preventing contamination, lack of processing centers, and the fact that trash disposal in rural areas is still relatively inexpensive (thus reducing the incentive to recycle).  The result, according to Bauerlein, is that the Charleston region recycled less than 1% of its eligible plastic in 2001 compared to a national recycling rate of about 31% in 2012.

Clearly, such figures indicate that we need to do a much better job of incenting and institutionalizing the recycling of plastic bottles (along with glass and metal containers) in this country.

And it is also important to note that this theme goes well beyond bottles and cans.  There are strong parallels to food as well.  We waste vast amounts of food annually in this country, and a high percentage of that food could be put to better use.  Making that transition is critically important as we face the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050 while preserving the environment.

In a piece from earlier this month, the Journal’s Ben Leubsdorf noted that Americans discarded over 36 million tons of food in 2012 — a whopping 72 billion pounds — yet less than 5% of that food was recycled.  As with plastics, infrastructure limitations contribute to such disturbing results.  And again, we clearly need to do much better in recovering and utilizing excess food in order to preserve scarce resources and promote sustainability.  The highest value use for excess food, of course, is to redirect it toward feeding hungry people.  Beyond that, the remainder (excess food that is not suitable for human consumption) can be used for industrial purposes (ex. generating power), feeding livestock, or compost.

The benefits of food recovery programs are clear — hungry people get needed food while the environment gains from reduced air and water pollution as well as reduced resource consumption.  As with plastics, while it may take some time to develop the needed infrastructure, local, state, and federal government agencies should be collaborating to provide the incentives to speed up food recycling and food recovery.  The state of Vermont, for example, has recently implemented legislation banning food waste in landfills by 2020.  These legislative efforts are beginning to catch on in other areas of the US as well, as they should.  Such legislation lays the groundwork for — and eventually forces — behavior change regarding food waste.  Individuals and organizations not only have the incentive to recycle excess food (at a lower cost than traditional landfill disposal), but they also are spurred to reduce operating costs by reducing excess food in the first place (the “source reduction” aspect of EPA’s Food Recovery hierarchy).  Such change should ripple through the food supply chain with positive effect.

85% of plastic bottles going to landfill in any region of the country is a very disturbing sign.  Less than 5% of billions of pounds of food getting captured for higher value use is worse.  In those figures there is tremendous opportunity for creative partnerships.  We need to step up our game regarding recycling at multiple levels — plastic, glass, metal, food, and water, to name a few.  We can no longer afford the waste of critical resources, nor can we afford to further damage the environment in our subsequent handling of them.