1970Symbolic Action

The celebration of the first Earth Day brings awareness to a variety of environmental issues, including trash disposal and the need for recycling and reuse.

Gary Anderson, a senior at the University of Southern California, wins a design competition sponsored by the Container Corporation of America for an emblem to put on their recycled cardboard products. He earns a cash prize of $2,500. After CCA fails to trademark the distinctive green-arrow Möbius strip, the design enters the public domain as a universally recognizable icon for recycling.

1991Corporate Responsibility

Germany adopts a national ordinance that makes manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their packaging materials after the consumer is done with them. This encourages corporations to reduce packaging and to better organize waste recycling and disposal. Today, waste produced by German corporations that contribute to a “dual-stream disposal” fund is collected alongside other consumer trash in yellow bags or bins. Households have four additional bins as well—green, blue, brown, and gray—for various types of waste. It’s a complicated yet widely accepted system. Germany now recycles or reuses about 70 percent of its waste stream.

2014Energy Boost

The city of Napa, California, plans an updated waste processing facility that will turn organic waste such as garden debris and food into compost for agricultural use, while also capturing the gas produced in the composting process and converting it to compressed natural gas. This is just one of many efforts to harness the byproducts of decomposing organic waste as renewable natural gas.

A Brief History
of Household
Recycling

Recycling programs might seem ordinary today, but it wasn’t long ago that the vast majority of households sent 100 percent of their waste to landfills. These days, the most ambitious cities are adding “zero-waste” goals to a growing list of “green” policies. Will any of them truly arrive at a future without trash? If the past is any guide, the best ideas for how to get there will be the result of years of testing and tinkering. By Sarah Goodyear

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1939Conflict Breeds Necessity

With the beginning of World War II, combatant countries begin “salvage” campaigns, urging citizens to collect and recycle materials including paper, tin cans, rubber boots, and even kitchen fat (for use in the manufacture of explosives).

1945Peace and Garbage

Once the war ends and prosperity returns—more quickly in some places than others—these salvage drives are abandoned, and the postwar period of consumption and waste begins to gain momentum.

1947A Growing Need

Fresh Kills landfill opens on New York’s Staten Island. It is supposed to have a 20-year lifespan, but due to the city’s relentless garbage production and the lack of alternatives, it remains active until 2001. At its busiest, 20 barges a day, each loaded with 650 tons of garbage, unload here, making the landfill a potent national symbol of waste.

1970Symbolic Action

The celebration of the first Earth Day brings awareness to a variety of environmental issues, including trash disposal and the need for recycling and reuse.

Gary Anderson, a senior at the University of Southern California, wins a design competition sponsored by the Container Corporation of America for an emblem to put on their recycled cardboard products. He earns a cash prize of $2,500. After CCA fails to trademark the distinctive green-arrow Möbius strip, the design enters the public domain as a universally recognizable icon for recycling.

1971Bottles Up

Oregon passes the first statewide beverage container deposit law in the United States. Today, states with bottle bills boast a 70 percent average recycling rate, compared to an overall rate in the U.S. of 33 percent.

1980Curb Appeal

Woodbury, New Jersey, becomes the first city in the United States to mandate recycling. Its curbside pickup program is promoted by then-Mayor Don Sanderson. People throw trash on his lawn in protest at first, but within three months Woodbury reaches 85 percent compliance. The program becomes a national model.

1987A Long, Strange Trip

A garbage barge called the Mobro 4000 leaves New York Harbor carrying 3,000 tons of the city’s trash. When its intended destination in North Carolina refuses to take delivery out of fear it might be carrying hazardous waste, the barge sets out on an odyssey that becomes emblematic of America’s waste problem and spurs calls for recycling and waste reduction. No one will accept this load of New York’s trash, and five months later, it returns to Brooklyn, where it is incinerated.

Today, the vast majority of New York’s garbage is still being shipped out of state to landfills and incinerators elsewhere.

1991Corporate Responsibility

Germany adopts a national ordinance that makes manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their packaging materials after the consumer is done with them. This encourages corporations to reduce packaging and to better organize waste recycling and disposal. Today, waste produced by German corporations that contribute to a “dual-stream disposal” fund is collected alongside other consumer trash in yellow bags or bins. Households have four additional bins as well—green, blue, brown, and gray—for various types of waste. It’s a complicated yet widely accepted system. Germany now recycles or reuses about 70 percent of its waste stream.

1995All Aboard

The concept of “single-stream” recycling—the opposite of the meticulous German sorting method—takes hold in the U.S., starting in California. The idea is that you put all your recyclables (paper, plastic, glass) into a single receptacle, and they’re sorted out at a processing plant. It’s not perfect, and as much as a quarter of the recyclable waste that’s handled this way can end up in a landfill.

2002Aiming High

San Francisco adopts a goal of keeping 75 percent of its waste out of landfills by 2010, and in 2003 sets the longer-term aim of zero waste going to landfills by 2020. By 2009, the city had mandated separation of both recyclables and compostable material.

2002No Simple Answers

Recycling of glass is halted in New York City, on the grounds that it is too expensive to merit the practice, a common criticism of recycling in the U.S. Two years later, glass recycling is reinstated, when landfilling the waste proves just as costly.

2006Do Not Pass Go

Seattle adopts mandatory recycling. It joins a relatively small number of cities around the country that not only encourage recycling with curbside pickup, but also impose penalties on those who don’t separate their trash. In 2015, Seattle adopted an additional fine for failure to compost food waste.

2008Europe United

The European Union sets a goal of recovering or reusing 50 percent of household waste, on average, across the EU by 2020. Austria, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland lead the way.

2009Little by Little

This year marks about 9,000 curbside recycling programs across the United States. Some 34 percent of waste is recovered nationally, which means 161 million tons of garbage—3 pounds per person—is thrown away every day.

2010Moving Goalposts

San Francisco claims an 80 percent landfill-diversion rate, although a lawsuit charges that the city’s waste contractor, Recology, is fudging the numbers, in part by improperly classifying certain types of demolition debris. In 2014, a judge ruled that Recology had indeed made false claims about its 2008 landfill figures, and ordered the company to repay to the city a $1.36 million bonus it received for meeting diversion goals.

2012More Garbage, Please

Sweden’s recycling and reuse program is so effective that only 4 percent of its trash ends up in landfills. It is forced to import garbage from Norway to power its waste-to-energy plants, which provide about 20 percent of the energy for its district heating program.

Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark are also leaders in the practice of burning garbage for energy, importing waste to keep their plants going.

Waste-to-energy plants remain controversial among environmentalists. They say that reliance on such energy, and long-term contracts with the plants, incentivize the continued production of waste. They also cite concerns about potentially toxic emissions.

2012Global Poverty Plays a Role

In Bangalore, a growing garbage crisis results in an outbreak of dengue fever. The Indian city responds by formally recognizing and organizing so-called “waste pickers,” poor families who rifle through trash in search of valuables to sell to scrap dealers.

Organized waste-picking collectives have become common in many developing countries, including Brazil, Colombia, and Egypt. Some of these groups now play a significant role in the formation of local waste management policies and programs.

2013One Word: Plastics

China is importing between 8 and 9 million tons of plastic recycling materials each year, making it a leader in the processing of such waste. The plastics recycling industry has transformed many once-rural communities into polluted trash heaps. The global market for recycled plastic is projected to reach 45 million tons in 2015.

2013One Bin for All?

Houston inaugurates a radical experiment in trash called “One Bin for All,” which would allow residents to dispose of all trash, recyclable or no, in one bin, and then let the city sort it out at a central facility. The plan, which is being phased in gradually, meets with opposition from those who say it is inefficient and will not curb waste in the long term.

2013By the Pound

South Korea, which has an aggressive recycling and reuse policy, starts charging residents for the amount of food waste they discard, using a system incorporating personal ID cards, which must be scanned on special bins that weigh the waste.

2014Energy Boost

The city of Napa, California, plans an updated waste processing facility that will turn organic waste such as garden debris and food into compost for agricultural use, while also capturing the gas produced in the composting process and converting it to compressed natural gas. This is just one of many efforts to harness the byproducts of decomposing organic waste as renewable natural gas.

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2015...and Beyond

A growing list of cities and countries are adopting “zero-waste” goals, typically based on a definition crafted by the Zero Waste International Alliance. While “zero” in most cases doesn’t literally mean zero—90 percent landfill diversion rates and above are usually considered sufficient—recycling and reuse rates still vary widely across the globe.

PRESENTED BY
IMAGE CREDITS (TOP TO BOTTOM)
Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon; The National Archives of the U.K.; Library of Congress; Staten Island Museum; Sébastian Thibault; AP Photo/Carlos Osorio; AP Photo/David Bookstaver; Sébastian Thibault; Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko; AP Photo/Elaine Thompson; Sébastian Thibault; Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris; Courtesy Tim Van De Velde; AP Photo/Altaf Qadri; Reuters/Jianan Yu; City of Houston; Karim Chrobog/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; Sébastian Thibault

INTERACTIVE CREDITS
Executive Producer: Sommer Mathis; Producer: Clarissa Matthews; Art Director: Libby Bawcombe; Lead Developer: Frankie Dintino; Associate Producer: Mark Byrnes