How much recycling goes to landfill?

This article discusses how much percentage of waste that is meant for recycling ends up in the landfills. 

How much recycling goes to landfills?

In a general trend, it has been seen that more than half (50%) of the refuse that is meant for recycling, generated from domestic as well as commercial activities, ends up in landfills.

Recycling and landfills

The process of transforming waste items into usable materials is known as recycling. Recycling is distinct from reuse, which merely refers to reusing a thing.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), roughly 30% of solid trash in the United States is recycled (i.e., waste collected by household and commercial garbage collection systems). 

About 15% of the waste is burned, while the other 55% is disposed of in landfills. Recycling appeals to people because it appears to offer a solution to reduce the quantity of garbage thrown in landfills while also conserving natural resources. 

As environmental worries developed in the late 1980s, popular perception shifted to recycling as a top option to safeguard the environment. Recycling was made a priority by governments, corporations, and the general population.

By the year 2000, the recycling rate had nearly doubled from 16 percent in 1990. Yard trimmings and food scraps gathered for composting have accounted for a large percentage of the rise.

Recycling, on the other hand, isn’t always cost-effective or even beneficial to the environment. Part of the public’s focus on recycling derives from misunderstandings. 

One common myth is that landfills and incinerators are hazardous to the environment. Landfills were once built to fill in marshes, and this is still true today (sometimes to reduce insect infestation). 

If waste from the landfill leaked, it may harm adjacent waters. Today, however, landfills are built away from wetlands. They’re made to keep its contents dry, and monitoring methods ensure that any leaks are detected before they cause harm.

Current scenario

Amongst the total trash generated from domestic as well as commercial activities, the components that can be recycled with relative ease are:

  • Plastic
  • Metal 
  • Glass
  • Paper

We shall discuss these in more detail.

Plastic


This may probably come as no surprise, but according to National Geographic, a staggering 91 percent of plastic is never recycled. This means that only about 9% of the waste is recycled.

As if that weren’t bad enough, nearly all of the plastic that is recycled is downcycled, meaning it becomes less and less valuable over time, finally becoming too flimsy to be recycled properly.

That 91 percent currently remains in landfills, stacking up and slowly degrading into potentially more harmful microplastics. 

According to National Geographic, nearly 12 billion metric tonnes of plastic will reside in landfills throughout the world by 2050. For scale, that amount of plastic weighs approximately 35,000 times more than the whole Empire State Building.

Metal

In terms of recycling, metal performs somewhat better than plastic. Around 69 percent of the crude steel used in the United States in 2019 was created from recycled material, according to The Balance Small Business. 

Although the percentage was around 32 percent globally, it still amounted to around 490.98 million metric tonnes of recycled steel.

Glass


Plastic is far more difficult to recycle than glass, which is similar to metal. According to EPA estimates from 2018, around 3.1 million tonnes of glass were recycled in that year.

This accounted for around 31.3 percent of all glass containers discarded in the United States that year.

The crucial thing to note is that just 5% of the glass ended up in landfills, which is a good thing because glass can take thousands of years or more to totally decompose.

Paper

Paper is one of the most recyclable materials available, unless it has been severely treated with chemicals. According to the EPA, 68 percent of all paper and cardboard recycling is actually recycled each year.

In 2018, around 46 million tonnes of paper were recycled. Though the data isn’t yet available, we’re ready to guess that the volume of cardboard boxes recycled during the pandemic alone will exceed that amount.

Unfortunately, unless the recycling supply chain is restored, individuals begin to pay greater attention to the objects and materials they recycle, and the globe abandons its reliance on difficult-to-recycle products like plastic, things may continue to spiral out of control.

Country wise rates of recycling


The recycling rate varies amongst the different regions of the world. This is because of the varying composition of trash generated from domestic as well as industrial processes.

We shall discuss the recycling rate of some major countries, which include:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • India

United States

In the US, in 2018, 292.4 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) were generated, or 4.9 pounds per person per day (unless otherwise stated). 

Approximately 69 million tonnes of MSW were recycled, whereas 25 million tonnes were composted. Nearly 94 million tonnes of MSW were recycled and composted, resulting in a recycling and composting rate of 32.1 percent.

United Kingdom

According to a survey issued earlier this year by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), British homes generate over 26 million tonnes of rubbish every year, which is equivalent to the weight of 260 big cruise ships.

This indicates that the average person in the UK wastes roughly 400kg each year.

12 million tonnes of the UK’s 26 million tonnes of garbage is recycled, whereas 14 million tonnes is disposed of in landfills. As a result, there is a 45 percent average recycling rate.

While England recycles about 44% of its garbage, some of its neighbours perform better, with Wales recycling 57% and Northern Ireland recycling 46%. Scotland lags behind England in terms of domestic garbage recycling, with just 43% recycled.

Germany

Germany is amongst the countries that have one of the highest recycling rates. Other countries in this list are South Korea and Austria.

Around 2.17 million tonnes of plastic trash were recycled, with 2.1 million tonnes of recyclable goods, 0.07 million tonnes of recycled raw materials, and 2.51 million tonnes of plastic garbage being transformed to energy or burnt.

In addition, 0.18 million tonnes were dumped in landfills. Plastics manufacture and processing had waste recycling rates of 97.4 percent and 99.7 percent, respectively.

94.3 percent and 96.5 percent of post-consumer trash from commercial final consumers and homes, respectively, were recycled.

Japan

The government has enacted strict legislation to address the trash problem. Japan’s residents observe highly tight recycling standards at home on a consumer level. 

Waste is collected on a regular basis, and rubbish is segregated and recycled to the greatest extent possible. In Japan, landfill usage is kept to a bare minimum. 

The country is small in terms of landmass, yet has a large population. They must be extremely cautious about what gets into the dump. In Japan, just 16 percent of garbage is disposed of in landfills, compared to 70 percent in the United States.

India

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is in charge of waste management in India (MoEF&CC). 

The Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, which were repealed in 2016 and replaced by the Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, had been in effect for 16 years. 

For the first time, this national strategy contributes to the recognition and integration of the informal sector (trash pickers) in the waste management process.

Every year, India produces 62 million tonnes of trash. Around 43 million tonnes (70%) are collected, with 12 million tonnes being processed and 31 million tonnes being disposed of in landfills.

Urban municipal solid waste output is expected to rise to 165 million tonnes in 2030 as a result of shifting consumption patterns and strong economic expansion.

Canada

Plastic garbage is produced in large quantities in Canada, with an estimated 3.3 million tonnes produced each year. Every year, almost 2.8 million tonnes of plastic garbage — the weight of 24 CN towers – winds up in Canadian landfills.

The Canadian government estimates that Canadians use about 15 billion plastic bags per year and nearly 57 million straws per day.

More than a third of the plastics produced in Canada are for single-use items or packaging. Approximately 86 percent of Canada’s plastic trash is disposed of in landfills, with just 9% recycled. 

The rest is incinerated, contributing to climate change and air pollution, or ends up as litter in the environment.

Furthermore, around 12% of Canada’s plastic garbage is sent outside of North America for “recycling,” which far too frequently ends in our waste damaging other nations rather than being properly recycled.

Conclusion

In a general trend, it has been seen that more than half of the refuse that is meant for recycling, generated from domestic as well as commercial activities, ends up in landfills.

This causes the landfills to fill up faster, as most of the items are resistant to biodegradation (eg.: plastics), thereby occupying volume in the landfill for a long time.

Amongst the various countries, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Austria are one of the most efficient countries in terms of recycling rate. This is because of practices such as waste categorisation at the source itself, and so on.

Some countries, such as the US, India, and Canada, should try to adapt the aforementioned countries’ models in order to improve their recycling rates, thereby avoiding any major issues in the future.

FAQs

What makes a landfill different from a dump?


The government does not regulate dumps, and they lack processing control. They may be found almost anywhere and are either coated in dirt or not. 

They are also unmonitored, which increases the risk of liquids created by solid waste entering the water supply.

A landfill that is limited to a small area and covered with layers of dirt is excellent. A liner at the bottom of the pit is also necessary to prevent leachate, or liquid from solid waste, from seeping through and contaminating the water supply.

Open dumps may attract pests like flies and rodents, as well as generate foul scents that are dangerous to humans. 

As a result, dumps are now deemed unlawful, and landfills have taken their place. Communal dumps have been converted to landfills which are regulated by the government.

Why is glass no longer recyclable?

Glass is rapidly becoming a pollutant in single-stream recycling systems. Other recyclables, such as paper and cardboard, might be contaminated by broken glass, decreasing their value. 

To keep the value of their recyclable resources, recyclers have been focusing on quality and eliminating contamination since the China import restriction.

Broken glass is a safety problem for employees, but it may also cause damage to recycling machinery. As a result, glass processing prices are rising.

In order to make high-quality glass bottles and jars, most manufacturers require recyclable glass to be sorted by colour. When glass is fractured, it’s difficult to sort, and if it’s broken down too finely, it can be difficult to reprocess.

When recyclers find it too difficult or expensive to separate out glass, they send the entire stream to the landfill. 

References

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