When I lived in New Hampshire in the ’70s and ’80s, recycling was mandatory. At the town dump, there were bins for glass, aluminum, paper and steel. A pile of brush and lumber scraps was off to the side for burning, and paints and other toxic things were put in another area out of the way. The remaining trash went down a chute to a bin that was hauled away. If the dump manager heard glass or cans going down the chute in your garbage bag, he yelled at you!
We were allowed to pick the dump, though. I brought home a wonderful pair of sliding barn doors, and friends had used scrap lumber to transform their garage into a workshop. Also, this dump was in Newmarket, home of Timerland shoes. There were always seconds and rejects at the dump, and almost everyone I knew had scavenged a pair or two of Timberland boots.
According to the EPA, in 2010, Americans created over 250 million tons of trash. That number has gone up 40% over the last 50 years, and 60% of that trash could have been recycled.
Recycling benefits to land, air, and water
Recycling reduces the need for land. We generate so much garbage, we need to find more and more raw land to dump it on. Land is finite! This must stop! There is a trash pile in a dump near Los Angeles that is 500’ tall. Much of this could have been recycled, but until it is mandatory, places like this will continue to be built and grow. Space is especially running out for cities and their suburbs.
Recycling reduces air and water pollution. Hazardous trash in landfills leaches contaminants and pollutes surrounding soil and the water table. As trash accumulates, it pollutes the air with methane and carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane is more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2! At least modern landfills now harness that energy for power.
Recycling and local economies
Recycling creates jobs. There are up to ten times as many jobs in recycling than in managing a landfill. Recycling includes collecting, sorting and processing ‘trash’, then manufacturing new items from it. These workers are generally paid higher wages, and as recycling gets more popular, this will mean even more jobs created and a boost to the economy.
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Recycling creates municipal income. Recyclable materials are bought and sold like any commodity. That income plus tax revenues offset the cost of buildings, equipment and labor.
Recycling and natural resources
Recycling conserves energy and natural resources. It takes less energy, money and natural resources to create new products from old. Recycling a ton of paper saves 7000 gallons of water and 17 trees, which pull CO2 from the air and convert it to oxygen. Trees are vital to the health of the planet!
Making glass products from recycled containers takes 50% less energy than using raw materials. Recycling aluminum saves the most – 95%! Plastic products use petroleum and natural gas in manufacture, so to recycle a ton of it saves over 16 barrels of oil. Recycled tin cans (actually made of steel) use 75% less energy than using raw materials.
Pre-consumer and post-consumer products
Recycling is most worth it when you, the consumer, purchase items manufactured from recycled materials. This brings the process full circle while creating demand for recycling. I just bought an office chair from Office Depot. It contains 35% post-consumer recycled content. This is one thing I look for when shopping for anything new (which is rare). What does it mean?
The most valuable recycled content is called ‘post-consumer’. Basically, this is trash, items that people could throw away but have taken to a recycling center. This keeps our landfills from piling up. ‘Pre-consumer’ recycled content is waste from the manufacturing process. Sometimes this will go back into the manufacturing stream, and sometimes it is recycled into new goods.
You may see a label that says ‘100% recycled content, 40% post-consumer content’. That means 60% is pre-consumer. Look for the highest post-consumer number when you are shopping. That is the material staying out of the landfill via recycling efforts.
Reduce, re-use, recycling – all a part of the same effort
The best thing you can do for the environment, though, is to reduce your waste as much as possible. A friend of mine challenged himself to see how little trash he could generate in a month. He recycled whatever he could, he composted kitchen and yard scraps, he bought food in bulk, he reused plastic and glass containers as storage, he set up e-billing with his creditors, and he got rid of junk mail catalogs. He took ½ bag of garbage to the landfill once a month or less often. That is how we all should be living!
Do you know the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?
- Reduce your consumption. Shop smart. Buy less, buy products with less packaging, and buy good quality items that will last a long time. Get rid of the disposable mind-set.
- Reuse what you can. When my clothes get too ratty for work, they become garden clothes, and eventually they become rags. Give old items a new purpose by upcycling. Find a second (and third!) use for everything that comes into your house.
- Recycle the rest. Take what you can to a recycling center. Secondhand stores will take household items, clothes, books and magazines. Buy second hand or barter with friends.
See how little trash you can generate in a month! Get together with some friends and have a challenge. It will help the environment as well as educate you. You can then turn around and educate others. Everyone and the planet will benefit.