Are Americans Getting Greener? The Facts on Recycling, Electric Vehicles, and Solar Energy

 

Article by Bobby Miller | 1,678 words

Walk around a typical store nowadays, and you’ll see plenty of products advertising that they were made using environmentally-friendly materials. Drive around a typical neighborhood on garbage day, and you’ll see more recycling bins out than you did years ago. And I’ll bet that vehicle you’re driving around in guzzles less gas than ones from the past. Does this mean that we’ve successfully “gone green,” so we don’t have to worry about climate change or any of that stuff anymore?

Some Americans sure think so. According to a Gallup poll from March 2014, 34 percent of Americans only worry about the environment a little—or not at all. A whopping 51 percent said that climate change is not on their minds either. To think, back in 2001, 42 percent of Americans said they “worry a great deal” about the quality of the environment, but only 31 percent care that much today.

Worried about environment

Credit: Gallup.com

Recycling and Composting

Perhaps that’s because there isn’t much to worry about. We’re recycling more, and alternative energy is becoming more popular, so maybe we have the whole climate change problem under control. After all, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s official website, we generated about 251 million tons of trash in 2012, but managed to recycle or compost about 87 million tons of it. To put that in perspective, we only recycled about 15 million tons of material in 1980. Back then, we only recycled about 10 percent of our trash, as compared to 34 percent now.

However, a closer look at the statistics doesn’t paint such a rosy picture. To begin with, even though our recycling percentage has increased significantly since 1980, we were already recycling about a third of our waste back in 2001. The recycling percentage has remained stagnant since then.

Waste Management

Our waste management has changed little in the last 13 years.
Credit: EPA.gov

The picture looks even less encouraging if we examine the “per capita” waste generation. Specifically, how much waste per person are we generating? The EPA has been examining our generation of municipal solid waste, or MSW, for decades. According to a handy graph, each American was producing about 2.68 pounds of trash a day in 1960. Now, 4.38 pounds of waste are produced per person every day. Since the population has gone up, this means that the total amount of trash the country is producing has gone up as well.

Trash generation

Since our per capita trash generation—represented by the squares—is not improving, our total waste generated—represented by the triangles—is not improving either.
Credit: EPA.gov

Basically, we’re recycling a greater percentage of our waste than we did decades ago, but we’re producing more trash than ever before. So, we’re still throwing out more in total than we did in the past.

To change this, we need to reduce the amount of stuff we consume—it’s that simple. So often, in the reduce, reuse, recycle formula, that reduce gets ignored in a culture that values having more stuff, as well as throwing out old stuff to get fancy new stuff.

Of course, the United States can still improve its recycling habits too. According to the research company Ipsos Public Affairs, only about half of Americans recycle on a daily basis, and 13 percent say they don’t recycle at all. The company speculates that part of the problem might be that Americans are not properly informed of what items can be recycled. Items like crayons, trophies, and even cat litter can be recycled. About half of Americans just throw an item away if they’re unsure whether or not it’s recyclable, which must produce tons of unnecessary waste.

I believe a number of people would be quite surprised if they realized just how much of their trash could be recycled. There’s more to it than just a few pieces of paper. Back when my family started recycling, we soon found that we were filling our recycle can much more quickly than our trash can. Once you realize just how much you were needlessly throwing out, it’s difficult to imagine ever reverting to your wasteful ways.

Still, it doesn’t help that 25 percent of Americans claim their recycling programs are too inconvenient, according to more data provided by Ipsos Public Affairs. What you can and can’t recycle varies from community to community, which can make filling the recycling bin a confusing process for some. Perhaps one township will accept all kinds of plastic labeled with a recycle symbol, but others will only accept kinds with a 1 or 2 in that little recycle symbol. The limited recycling options provided by some communities result in all sorts of needless waste, even from individuals who are genuinely concerned about climate change. Plus, a number of communities charge extra for recycling services, and some people aren’t able or willing to pay a recycling fee.

Composting, another solution to managing waste, has also been slow to pick up steam in certain areas. According to a survey conducted online in December 2013 by the research firm Harris Interactive, 67 percent of adults who do not compost their food waste would be willing to do so if the process were more convenient where they live. Yet, “the survey also found that 62 percent would not support an increase in the cost of their waste and recycling service, either in the form of a separate fee or an increase in taxes, if necessary to support separate food and yard waste collection,” as AmericanRecycler.com explained.

So, the majority of Americans want recycling and composting to be free and easy. Apparently, many people aren’t concerned about climate change enough to put in a little time and money for the sake of the environment.

Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

As important as it is to manage our waste properly, there are plenty of other ways to help the environment. For instance, fossil fuel emissions are notorious criminals in the grand scheme of global warming, so motor vehicle companies are developing alternative means of driving around. Some offer hybrids or even pure electric vehicles, which sound like promising means of reducing our carbon footprints. According to The Fiscal Times, the Obama administration even wants to see one million plug-in electric vehicles on our roads by 2015.

Electric vehicle charging

Credit: Green-Parking.co.uk

This goal is not as ambitious as it sounds, however. According to R. L. Polk & Company, a provider of automotive statistics, there were about 240.5 million cars and trucks on American roads in January 2012. So the Obama administration’s goal is actually to have about 0.4 percent of vehicles run on electricity by 2015, which would only be a small step toward reducing fuel emissions. For a sizeable percentage of American drivers to abandon fossil fuels, electric vehicle technology needs to address common concerns like cost and driving range.

There are a few bright sides, however. According to HybridCars.com, hybrid sales have been increasing steadily since 2011. Even though they constitute only about 3 percent of the market today, it’s encouraging to at least see their sales growing. Plus, Polk & Company also found that Americans are maintaining their vehicles longer, to the point that the average vehicle on the road is over 10 years old. Rather than constantly throwing aging vehicles into the scrap yard, we’re reducing the consumption of resources necessary to build replacements.

Solar Energy

Finally, let’s take a look at how solar energy is faring. It’s a promising form of alternative energy since the sun isn’t running out of juice anytime soon. In fact, according to a Gallup poll conducted in early 2013, over 70 percent of Americans believe that the United States should place more emphasis on producing energy from solar power.

Yet, only a handful of these individuals are jumping on the solar energy bandwagon right now. According to a recent estimate published in Scientific American, only about 200,000 homes in the United States use solar energy. There are approximately 115 million households in the country, as the United States Census Bureau recently found. Put these two facts together and you’ll find that only 0.17 percent of Americans power their homes with solar systems.

The number of people opting for solar panels is growing rapidly, however. “Since 2010 solar installations in the United States have increased six-fold,” according to Scientific American. “At the same time, the cost of installing solar has fallen by at least 60 percent.” So even though solar panels are a rare find in the United States now, they might have a bright future ahead of them.

What We Can Do Now

What, though, should we do in the meantime? Just sit around waiting for electric vehicle and solar panel prices to drop? Hope that communities make recycling and composting easier?

There’s actually much more that we can do. For one thing, if your community’s recycling and composting services aren’t much to brag about, then perhaps officials in your area need to hear you voice your concern. And aside from recycling your own waste, you can also tell skeptics about the benefits of joining the recycling revolution.

That’s only the beginning, however. Websites such as 50WaysToHelp.com provide all sorts of advice for people who want to do everything they can to preserve the environment for future generations. Some of these suggestions are easy to follow while others require a good amount of effort. But I, for one, would rather be a part of the solution than part of the problem, so I believe it’s worth making some lifestyle changes.

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