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New report details staggering economic value of recyclables lost to landfills: 'We can do better'

"The energy and resource values of materials put into landfills are lost."

"The energy and resource values of materials put into landfills are lost."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study has revealed the staggering amount of waste being created in the United States, and the economic value lost in the process is billions. 

What's happening?

As detailed by Recycling Today, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory released a report in December that discovered less paper, cardboard, and paper-based materials were being recycled than initially believed, resulting in $4 billion in lost economic value. 

"That value is lost by landfilling," Anelia Milbrandt, a senior research analyst at the NREL's Strategic Energy Analysis Center, told the outlet. 

The report, which was compiled using data from 2019, found that around 56% of paper and cardboard in the U.S. was ending up in dumps, while another 6% was incinerated. Only 38% of the 110 million tons was recycled. 

Those numbers are in stark contrast to the 66.2% recycling rate reported in 2019 by the American Forest & Paper Association, which recorded a 68% rate in 2022. 

"The energy and resource values of materials put into landfills are lost. We can do better if we want to achieve a circular economy," Milbrandt added

Why is this concerning?

Producing paper and cardboard can release harmful pollution into the air, as well into our waters and on land. 

And when the materials break down in landfills, they generate methane, a heat-trapping gas that the UN Environment Programme has called "80 times more harmful" than carbon dioxide over the first 20 years of its release. 

Not only that — both materials are made from trees. 

That means manufacturing new products can lead to deforestation, a process that disrupts the protective balance of the environment, including by decreasing biodiversity and reducing the amount of plants on Earth soaking up carbon pollution.

The report also pointed out that sending paper products to landfills contributes to waste disposal fees.

What can I do to help? 

Happily, the majority of paper products can be recycled or tossed into a compost, so ensuring that items are going into the correct bins can go a long way toward helping amend this issue. 

The rules for recycling can vary from location to location. However, there are plenty of resources online to help make things simple, including Earth911, while specific products often have How2Recycle instructions right on their labels. 

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