NEW YORK—It's human nature to conserve and hoard, so a lot of Americans today take a certain pleasure in their trash habits when it comes to recycling paper, plastics, glass and cans. But in order to make sure we don't run out of resources as Earth's population peaks, the next garbage frontier is an "upstream" focus on solid waste management and getting industries to take more responsibility for collecting the trash that results from consumption of their products, a panel of speakers said here on March 23.

State, municipal and community policymakers today are re-envisioning waste, even the so-called solid waste that most Americans rarely recycle such as household refuse, tires, discarded appliances and furniture, and now looking at it as it was viewed in the 19th century—as a resource, not just as something to "throw out," said panelist Resa Dimino, special assistant in the Commissioner's Policy Office, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Maggie Clarke, a "zero waste" researcher, analyst, educator and activist who spoke at the panel discussion, organized by Science Writers in New York, said that "most of what is sent to incinerators is recyclable, reusable or compostable, and this is a real crime."

Recycling of paper, glass and plastics is mandatory in some U.S. cities, but compliance varies and enforcement is spotty. Recycling accounted for 36 percent of New York state's total waste stream in 2008, to give a local example, according to the state's newly released draft of its Solid Waste Management Plan. Residential recycling rates vary across municipalities in New York from 21 pounds/person/year to 700 pounds/person/year, Dimino said, so there is huge variation and room for improvement.

The Solid Waste Management Plan's "most astounding finding," she said, "is that mandatory recycling in and of itself is not enough to achieve high levels of waste reduction and materials recovery." For instance, solid waste is a strong contributor to climate change, through methane emissions at dumps, contributing some 42 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas inventory, she said. Currently, solid waste is recycled at a rate of 20 percent. Implementing the state's Solid Waste Management Plan "could reduce nearly 23 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions annually, save more than 250 trillion BTUs of energy each year—as much energy as is consumed by more than 2.5 million homes—and create 74,000 jobs," according to a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation projection included in the plan's executive summary.

Organic matter—mostly food but also yard waste and other material—makes up 30 percent of the state's waste stream, Dimino said. For solutions, there is talk in New York City of starting city-supported compost collection, as occurs in some West Coast cities and Toronto. An active bill in the New York State Legislature aims to implement some form of electronics recycling, she said.

Packaging makes up 30 percent of the waste generated nationwide, according to the solid waste plan, so Dimino is a fan of "packaging stewardship," which is practiced in the European Union and many Canadian provinces. This approach involves manufacturers paying into a fund based on the amount of packaging they use and the cost of recycling those materials. The proceeds are allocated by a quasi-governmental or independent organization to cover the costs of collection and recycling or disposal of the packages and materials, as well as market development, infrastructure improvements and ways to spread the word.

The ubiquitous to-go coffee cup

Panelist Annie White of Global Green's New York office said this organization is trying to make things easier for consumers and retailers at the point of purchase, especially when it comes to recycling food waste. New York City generates six million tons of food waste annually, she said. Paper coffee cups are one of the major components of that, with 58 billion being used yearly in the U.S. If they were recycled, some $27 million could be saved in disposal costs, she said. Take-out food containers are also a big part of the food waste stream and Global Green aims to get restaurants to implement cardboard box take-out containers as cardboard is the most recycled material in the nation, at a rate of about 75 percent, she said.

A point-of-purchase coffee cup recycling program is being piloted at seven coffee stores in New York City, she said, showing pictures of cups-only trash bins full of cups with that familiar fish-lady logo on them. So far the effort is generating a "pretty good stream," she said, that is, mostly cups. And over time, consumers got better at discarding only cups in the bins, researchers found.

Global Green is also working with a big paper bag-maker to develop a recyclable trash bag that would hold paper products so the whole unit could be recycled at once, White said.

Household recycling today

Clarke did her doctoral research on environmental shopping campaigns in New York City. She found that the two main reasons behind why people don't recycle are that 42 percent forget to do it and 20 percent are confused about what to recycle. Dirty and inaccessible pick-up spots also are a disincentive. "If it's a bad experience with recycling, they're not likely to continue with the behavior," Clarke said.

Panelist Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York office agreed, scolding New York City officials for confusing recycling policies in the past decade, which involved suspending and then re-instating glass, metal and plastics recycling (paper recycling stayed in place throughout these confusing years). "If you want to have successful recycling in New York City, you have to have rules that are simple, you have to have rules that are consistent, and everyone has to know why it's important to participate," he said.

Dimino has studied recycling compliance among cities and towns throughout New York state and found that the number one predictor of compliance was the extent to which a community "committed" to the process by hiring staff and setting up infrastructure to make recycling simple and accessible.

Where your trash goes

Another panelist, Dietmar Offenhuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's "Trash Track" program, SenseAble City Lab, talked about research he headed up to use active location sensors to track thousands of pieces of trash to see the paths they took from being "thrown away" to their final resting places.

His team deployed 2,000 cell phone-sized sensors on items in Seattle last October. The sensors were surrounded in foam to protect them from liquids and designed to be treated badly for up to three months. Some items, like small batteries and newspapers, could not be tracked, but the sensors worked well on everything ranging from plastic bottles to teddy bears.

The initial findings: paper, scrap metal, glass and plastic tended to stay in the Seattle area, but hazardous and electronic waste took trips that lasted for thousands of miles, criss-crossing the continent. One path went from Seattle to California to Mexicali to Chicago to Denver, he said.