"Make it go away."
How many times have you said or thought that? (The list of potential subjects would seem inexhaustible.) And how many times has your wish come true without effort or compromise?
Still, there are some kinds of unburdening we usually can take for granted. For instance, when city dwellers put out their garbage at the appointed time and place, nice people with big trucks come and, well, make it go away.
Or, more specifically, take it somewhere else. Like to a landfill or an incinerator. Because both solutions pose environmental risks, this doesn't really rid us of our problem, even if an immediate need has been met.
Which you know, and which you perhaps disapprove of. So maybe you've made a determined household effort to sort out recyclable materials or even compost your food waste. If so, good on you. As a recent Star Tribune article reported, nearly half of the waste generated in the Twin Cities area as of a couple of years ago can be counted as recycled in one way or another.
Which is pretty good, but not enough.
It's good because it's an improvement. It was about 30% a decade ago. The recycling of organic material — composting — explains much of the gain.
It's insufficient because the demand for places to put waste is still growing. Landfills are buried at the bottom of the list of preferred options in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's "waste hierarchy," but the agency is considering four requests for expansion in the southern Twin Cities suburbs. Any approval would be the first in 16 years. There may not be an immediate alternative. The metro area's incinerators are running at capacity, and some of the easier gains in recycling have already been made.
Paper is a case in point. It comprised 23% of the municipal waste generated nationally in 2018, according to the most recent figures presented by the Environmental Protection Agency, but also accounted for 66% of recycling.
Plastic is a vexation. There's perhaps less of it generated than you might think given its duly vilified reputation — it was 12% of the total in 2018. But it constituted just 4.5% of recycled material. One problem is marketplace dynamics. In recent years, low oil prices — crude oil being a raw material in plastic and thousands of other products besides gas for cars — have made it cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it. Meanwhile, demand for single-use plastics has grown during the pandemic.
Food waste, though, holds promise for further progress. At nearly a quarter, it's the largest component of both landfills and burners, according to the EPA. A national nonprofit organization, ReFED, found that 35% of food went uneaten or unsold in the U.S. in 2019, and put the cost of that at $408 billion and 4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Household and curbside composting can help, but reducing the waste to begin with is paramount.
So there are avenues to pursue in preventing the need for still more landfill space in the future. But consumers can't be expected to do it alone. Government can encourage or require producers to reduce packaging and can help develop recycling markets.
Recycling policy is most often addressed at the state level, but efforts for a more cohesive federal role were in the works before the pandemic struck. They should be redoubled, along with reforming any lax individual habits that have developed during a period where one problem — a disease — has loomed above all others.