The 40th anniversary of Earth Day is an excellent opportunity to talk trash.
Let's face it: Americans often get flak for producing too much garbage. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we threw out more than 250 million tons of garbage in the past year alone.
Put those numbers into context, however, and you will find that we are doing a lot better than we were a few decades ago. In fact, proper waste management is actually one of America's greatest environmental successes. In the past two decades alone, we have witnessed a startling transformation in how we deal with all the garbage.
Consider this: Though the waste stream has increased over the years along with the population, we actually sent more than 7 million tons less waste to disposal than we did almost 20 years ago. That is precisely because we've gotten better at using trash as a resource.
Take recycling — a major environmental achievement. Curbside recycling programs were virtually unheard-of 20 years ago. Today, such programs have helped to more than double America's recycling rate since 1990.
Meanwhile, manufacturers have found that recycled materials cost less than virgin, and that their use saves a substantial amount of energy and natural resources. Aluminum cans are a great example. Manufacturing 1 pound of aluminum from recycled material requires only 4 percent of the energy needed to make virgin aluminum from its basic starting mineral, bauxite ore.
Waste-based energy is another major transformation. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that more than half of America's renewable energy comes from our trash — more than the energy outputs from solar, hydroelectric and wind power combined.
Millions of homes and businesses, including major companies such as Honeywell and Dell, are powered by clean, renewable fuel generated using byproducts of our garbage at waste-to-energy and landfill-gas-to-energy plants.
Even our landfills are better. Once little more than open-air pits, today's modern landfills are state-of-the-art facilities, carefully regulated and managed to reduce air pollution, minimize odors and control leachates, the liquid contaminants that seep from landfills.
After they've reached capacity, engineers and landscape designers now turn the landfills into golf courses, wildlife refuges and other green spaces.
Though Americans can be proud of these achievements, we're not stopping here. Local authorities and solid-waste companies are now working together to figure out how to shrink the pile even further.
Many cities are turning to "zero waste" programs. "Zero waste" doesn't mean "no waste," but rather encouraging Americans to reduce, reuse and recycle what they throw away, and for manufacturers and others in the supply chain to find new uses for the stuff we once threw away.
As part of the effort, trash companies are consulting with major retailers to cut down on packaging waste and are working with government officials to improve the efficiency of recycling programs.
The transition to a "zero waste" society won't be easy or quick, but we're getting closer than ever before — thanks to a deeper respect for Earth, technological innovation and the realization that today's waste is tomorrow's resource.