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Lower Landfill Costs and Lack of Recycling Innovation Present Challenges for Sustainable Waste Management

Considering the way the recycling movement took on significant momentum back in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I thought it would continue to accelerate. Instead, we still rely on traditional landfilling. Why? 

The relative low cost of generating waste is preventing recycling innovation. 
 
I have been working on the waste issue a very long time here at McDonald’s. Back in the late 80s, we came under attack for the amount of waste generated through the normal course of our operations. We made a number of changes in our packaging, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, to eliminate some 300 million pounds of waste. And yet, the lack of recycling infrastructure and cheap nature of landfilling remain today as barriers to progress.
 
Consider this: Back in the early 1990’s, landfill tipping fees averaged around $25 per ton. Now they are $30-35.* The cost of landfilling waste has gone up only 40% in the last two decades. Somehow, landfilling has not been keeping pace with inflation rates. Not even close.
 
What does this mean for our overall generation of waste and the landfill versus recycling ratio? Well, the statistics are not good. Unfortunately, the generation of overall waste is keeping pace with averages from 20 years ago. The growth of our US population has grown 24% since 1990; waste has increased 20%. Recovered materials have more than doubled, increasing from 16% (1990) to 34% (2010).
 
I read the Marc Gunther story on Waste Management with interest. Bill Caesar from Waste Management talks about extracting as much value out of the waste stream as possible, but progress has been slow.
 
For those with more knowledge on why waste is so cheap, let us know your insight.
 

-Bob Langert
Vice President, Sustainability


*(Source: Market Driven Analysis of Restaurant Composting, prepared by Duke University for the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Composting Council, April 30, 2012, citing Nora Goldstein, Food Composting Overview, BioCycle, November 2006, Web. 29 Feb 2012).

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