The Ecology of Waste: How to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle to Make a Sustainable Future

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Tackling the global waste crisis requires more than recycling, and a recent U.S. survey found that people often overlook the most sustainable options. The U.N. is currently working on a legally binding pact to reduce plastic waste, and many U.S. cities and states have banned or restricted single-use plastic items. Experts recommend prioritizing source reduction strategies and emphasizing the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” hierarchy of waste management strategies.

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You’ve just finished a cup of coffee at your favorite cafe. Now you’re facing a trash bin, a recycling bin and a compost bin. What’s the most planet-friendly thing to do with your cup? .

Many of us would opt for the recycling bin – but that’s often the wrong choice. In order to hold liquids, most paper coffee cups are made with a thin plastic lining, which makes separating these materials and recycling them difficult.

Half of all plastic products will have been used only once and then thrown away within 30 years of theU.N. Pactbeing set in 2023

In fact, the most sustainable option isn’t available at the trash bin. It happens earlier, before you’re handed a disposable cup in the first place.

In our research on waste behavior, sustainability, engineering design and decision making, we examine what U.S. residents understand about the efficacy of different waste management strategies and which of those strategies they prefer. In two nationwide surveys in the U.S. that we conducted in October 2019 and March 2022, we found that people overlook waste reduction and reuse in favor of recycling. We call this tendency recycling bias and reduction neglect.

Nearly 70% of plastic waste in the U.S. is landfilled, 30% is recycled and less than 0.1% is incinerated for energy recovery

Our results show that a decadeslong effort to educate the U.S. public about recycling has succeeded in some ways but failed in others. These efforts have made recycling an option that consumers see as important – but to the detriment of more sustainable options. And it has not made people more effective recyclers.

A global waste crisis .

Experts and advocates widely agree that humans are generating waste worldwide at levels that are unmanageable and unsustainable. Microplastics are polluting the Earth’s most remote regions and amassing in the bodies of humans and animals.

In 2020, world plastic production reached 350 million tons, 6 times more than 1980, and could reach almost 700 million tons by 2040

Producing and disposing of goods is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a public health threat, especially for vulnerable communities that receive large quantities of waste. New research suggests that even when plastic does get recycled, it produces staggering amounts of microplastic pollution.

Given the scope and urgency of this problem, in June 2023 the United Nations convened talks with government representatives from around the globe to begin drafting a legally binding pact aimed at stemming harmful plastic waste. Meanwhile, many U.S. cities and states are banning single-use plastic products or restricting their use.

If all of the plastic products hurled away since 1950 were piled up on the Earth’s surface, it would cover an area the size of Texas twice over

Upstream and downstream solutions .

Experts have long recommended tackling the waste problem by prioritizing source reduction strategies that prevent the creation of waste in the first place, rather than seeking to manage and mitigate its impact later. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other prominent environmental organizations like the U.N. Environment Programme use a framework called the waste management hierarchy that ranks strategies from most to least environmentally preferred.

Compostable paper cups are made from cellulose and are lined only with a coating of plant-based material, like corn or sugar cane

The familiar waste management hierarchy urges people to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," in that order. Creating items that can be recycled is better from a sustainability perspective than burning them in an incinerator or burying them in a landfill, but it still consumes energy and resources. In contrast, reducing waste generation conserves natural resources and avoids other negative environmental impacts throughout the life cycle of a product, from the manufacture and use of materials to final disposal.

Plastic can take up to 500 years to degrade, whereas compostable items disintegrate within a few months

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