Waste and Recycling in
North America

              According to the World Bank, North America is the least populous region in the world (WorldBank, What a Waste 2.0). There are currently, 364 million people living in North America (Mexico not included in their numbers), which accounts for 5% of the world’s population. However, when it comes to waste production, the numbers are inversely proportional. This article looks to shed some light on the overproduction of waste in North America, demystify recycling practices, and discussing some trends around recycling.

Waste Production in North America

              Despite possessing only 5% of the world’s population, North America produces 14% of the world’s waste. Over the course of a year, North Americans will produced 2.21 kg/per capita/per day of waste and are projected to hit 2.5 kg by 2050. No other region in the world even breaks the 1.5 kg mark. As a matter of fact, East Asia & Pacific, the most populated region in the world, only produces 0.56kg/per capita/per day, despite accommodating 30% of the world’s population.

Source: Worldbank

              And what is America’s waste composed of? Well, according to the Frontier Group, 30% of municipal waste produced in the US is packaging material. Packaging that is created and thrown away quickly with little repurposing potential. Overproduction of wastes such as clothing and newspapers, classified as non-durable goods, corresponds to 20% of the waste produced per person. Other types of waste are: yard trimmings (13%), food and organic materials (15%), and durable goods (furniture and appliances with high repurpose potential) account for 20%.

As Easy as Cake: Contamination Rates and The Recycling Process

              Most people believe that recycling is the solution to the waste crisis, but the solution is more complicated than it seems. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to agree, they estimate that 75% of American waste is recyclable, but only 30% of it is actually recycled (Indiana University,”Waste & Recycling.”). North American recycling has become a much bigger problem in the past few years since China, through its National Sword policy, has decided to limit the importation of recycling that does not pass a certain threshold of contamination tolerated per “batch” of recycled material. Similar issues occurred when the Philippines raised concerns to Canada over its mislabelling of wastes headed to the island nation (CBC).

              According to the CBC “Contamination is the technical name for non-recyclable material or garbage in the recycling system, from leftover food in containers to non-recyclable plastic packaging to more obvious garbage such as clothing and propane tanks.” Major cities such as Toronto have a contamination rate as high as 25% (CBC), which burdens recycling facilities and, essentially, turns such recycling materials into unrecyclable waste.

              The problem with recycling and contamination can be better understood by making a cake analogy: when baking a cake, if 25% of your ingredients are contaminated by various different products, the end result is anything but a cake. Generally, recycling follows a recipe-like procedure: recyclable material is collected, sorted, shredded, then re-melted (in the case of tin cans), and turned into usable produce again as exemplified below.

              If 25% of the tins are contaminated by other types of waste, then the end result will not be a recycled tin. Sorting and cleaning efforts of the materials are, in most facilities, present. However, a 25% contamination rate is too burdensome and costly for facility employees to comb through. A decent contamination rate may depend on the facility and materials being recycled.

Reducing Contamination Rates and Increasing Recycling Potential

              Part of the contamination issue could be improved by investing in increased public awareness of recyclable materials and local recycling facilities capabilities. Contamination rates can be high simply because the public has no idea of what is recyclable and the recycling process. With increased awareness, the cleaning and sorting burden that some recycling facilities have could be alleviated, therefore, reducing costs or allowing the redirection of resources to the improvement of local recycling facilities and collection systems.

              Further, recycling education should be done according to the capabilities and technology of local recycling facilities or according to the facilities that the material is destined to. For instance, in the city of Toronto, black plastic is NOT recyclable. Even if a plastic container comes with the Mobius Loop symbol (see below), if the plastic is black, no matter the format, it is not recyclable (City of Toronto).

              Therefore, local recycling facility technology dictates what is recyclable and NOT the recycling symbol (Mobius Loop) found on products.

The 4 R’s: Recycle, Reuse, Repurpose, and Reduce

              In general, a majority of people have already heard of the 3 R’s (recycle, reuse, and repurpose), but recently, new trends on recycling have been calling for a 4th R: reduction. The fourth R not only entail consumer reduction of products that generate a lot of waste, but also prompts businesses to reduce their waste production as well.

              Some consumers have started to moved away from traditional grocery retailers who produce a lot of single use plastic to bulk retailers with zero waste policies that incentivise consumers to shop with reusable bags and containers.

Source: CBC

Reusable shopping bags for groceries

Credit: iStock/ Getty Images

Zero Plastic Grocery Store in Edinburgh, UK: The Refillery

              In general, humans are resistant to change and may come with several reasons (or excuses) as to why it is difficult to reduce waste production, or even cite a really expensive waste free grocery story to justify their habit. However, change does not have to happen all at once and it does not need to be shocking or hurt your pockets. Some items can be more expensive in certain traditional grocery stores than they are at a bulk retailer. Making the switch can start by simply opting for the package free cucumber rather than the individually wrapped one.


              Given the unparalleled overproduction of waste in North America of 2.21 kg/capita/day, rethinking how individuals shop and recycle is essential to ensure future generation are not surrounded by waste. Beyond consumer awareness, businesses should rethink their waste production and redirect part of their R&D budget towards waste reduction in their chain to better understand the impact that such move may have on their bottom line and the possible added benefit of public perception. It is better to be perceived as a movement changer for sustainability than to be perceived as one of the contributing causes for environmental disasters. In our next Social Impact article, we will provide a data visualization to help you dig into waste production around the world.

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