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Exploring America’s hidden recycling industry

Batteries (Image 1 of 10)

In the U.S. alone, billions of batteries are discarded each year. Recycling is an important tool for reducing waste of constituent materials and keeping toxic substances out of landfills. Efforts are underway to redesign batteries to minimize use of dangerous chemicals and improve recyclability.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Bales (Image 2 of 10)

According to the EPA, in 2012 Americans recycled 44 million tons — or just 39 percent — of all the paper and paperboard discarded.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Stacked #1 (Image 3 of 10)

Tires’ bulk and weight can make them hard to recycle, but they can be reused in multiple ways, including for fuel, playground mulch, and other forms of rubber surfacing.

Source: Benefits of Recycling

Condensed New Jersey (Image 4 of 10)

Each year in the United States, enough copper is recycled to provide the copper content in roughly 26,000 Statues of Liberty.

Source: Schupan

Cans (Image 5 of 10)

Some 100,000 aluminum cans are recycled each minute in the U.S. It can take as few as 60 days for these cans to find their way back to the supermarket shelf.

Sources: Keep America Beautiful and State of Washingon Department of Ecology


Capacitors (Image 6 of 10)

When capacitors — small components that store energy in electrical devices — are at the end of their life cycle, they can be deconstructed and their materials, particularly the metals, used again.

Source: Cleanlites Recycling

Computers (Image 7 of 10)

Electronic waste is a growing concern in the United States. In 2010 alone, 52 million computers — more than 142,000 computers each day — were discarded. Of these, 40 percent were recycled.

Source: Electronics TakeBack Coalition

Cafeteria (Image 8 of 10)

School cafeterias are often targets for recycling due to the large volume of waste generated. Before the food can reach the trays of hungry kids, it has to be removed from packaging, such as cans and plastic film.

Glass Mountain (Image 9 of 10)

Just 28 percent of the glass discarded in the U.S. in 2012 was recovered for recycling, but the demand for even more is strong. In recent years among glass container manufacturers the demand for recycled broken or waste glass has exceeded the available supply.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Saran (Image 10 of 10)

Recycling of plastic films is limited by contamination and access to appropriate facilities.

Source: Plasticbaglaws.org


The World Bank estimates that by 2025, some 6 million tonnes of solid waste will be generated each day around the world — nearly double what’s produced today. By 2100 that number could hit 11 million. A Smithsonian magazine article from 2013 went so far as to ask if we were on the path to “peak garbage.”

New York–based photographer Stephen Mallon brings this issue into focus through a series of photos called “American Reclamation Vol. 1.” Through stunning and often surreal images, Mallon reimagines waste and recycling as fine art.

“There has been a lot of negative press recently about how recycling isn’t working or helping,” says Mallon. “I wanted to feature projects showing recycling in action and how it can help reduce and repurpose waste.”

So, is there hope we’ll start to bend the trash curve down even as global population grows? Reductions in consumption and packaging along with reuse and recycling are the obvious solutions. But we still have a ways to go.

In 2012 in the United States only 35 percent of municipal solid waste was recycled — far behind Austria at 63 percent, which also currently leads Europe.

Mallon plans to continue to bring the intersection of industry and the environment to life through his photos. Future installments in the American Reclamation series will look at the sinking of the USS Arthur W. Radford to create an artificial reef off the coast of Delaware and the repurposing of the Fresh Kills Landfill into a city park on Staten Island in New York. View Ensia homepage

Stephen Mallon is a New York-based photographer and photojournalist. His work has been viewed at exhibitions around the world, and Communication Arts, Photo District News, The New York Photo Festival, The Lucie Awards, International Color Awards and others have honored his photos. To see more of his work, visit www.stephenmallon.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

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