The facts are undeniable: landfills are overflowing, forests are disappearing, water resources are being contaminated, and prices at the store are skyrocketing. What can be done to reverse this trend? The answer is surprisingly simple—recycling.
- The average American throws away 600 times their weight in trash during their lifetime.
- Each year we dispose of enough paper in the U.S. to build a 12’ tall wall from New York to Los Angeles.
- Enough aluminum is discarded every three months to rebuild the entire commercial airline fleet.
- Every ton of paper recycled saves 17 trees, 6,900 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, 4,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space.
- Recycling aluminum saves 95 percent of the energy that would be required to produce it from raw materials.
- Each aluminum can that is recycled saves enough power to run a television for three hours.
The History of Recycling
You might think recycling is new, but most U.S. cities had some sort of recycling program in place before 1920. The most notable period in American history for recycling was during World War II when everything from tin to nylon stockings to cooking grease was recycled for the war effort.
After experiencing a postwar slump, recycling has rebounded in recent years, going from less than 7% of U.S. households in 1960 to more than 30% today. While only one municipality offered curbside recycling 20 years ago, that number has grown to almost 9,000 today. The EPA estimates that 79 million tons—almost one-third of all household waste—was recycled in 2005.
The three arrows of the recycling symbol represent the stages involved in the process:
- Collection: The first step is for consumers to separate out recyclable material so it can be collected and processed. Many cities now offer curbside pickup while others have designated drop-off locations.
- Manufacture: Recycled material is then purchased by manufacturers who turn it into new products. While the initial conversion needed to process recycled materials can be expensive, production and energy costs are greatly reduced in the long run which can offset this expense.
- Purchase: The cycle ends where it began when consumers buy new products made from recycled materials. In order to be labeled “recycled,” a product must list the percent of reused ingredients unless it was made entirely from recycled material.
What to Recycle
Items collected for recycling include:
- Paper and cardboard
- Aluminum and steel cans
- Plastic bottles and jugs
- Glass containers
- Plastic bags (return to grocery store)
It is also important to recycle:
- Batteries (from AA to those in your car)
- Appliances (refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, microwaves)
- Household chemicals (paint, stain, solvents, cleaning products)
- Electronic devices (computers, televisions, cell phones, printers, copiers)
- Motor oil and antifreeze
- Fluorescent light bulbs and tubes
Not only can parts from these items be salvaged for reuse, but they also contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals that can leach from landfills into ground water. Of the two million tons of electronic devices discarded every year, less than one quarter are disposed of properly.
Getting on the Cycle
Begin by contacting your local municipal solid waste management department to find out about the recycling program in your area. Items should be cleaned, compressed, and sorted before putting them by the curb for pickup. Some municipalities provide special bins for recycled materials while others allow residents to supply their own containers.
The easiest way to get started is simply by thinking twice before tossing it away. Better yet, stop waste at the source by cutting back on the use of disposable items. Refill plastic water bottles rather than buying more, make school lunches in resealable containers instead of disposable plastic bags, and buy items in bulk to cut back on wasteful packaging.
Don’t overlook the benefits recycling can have on your yard as well. Instead of sending lawn clippings, leaves, and kitchen waste to the landfill, start a compost pile and turn it into nutrient rich material for your garden.
While recycling might take a little lifestyle adjustment, the rewards are well worth the effort. So what are you waiting for? Get on the recycle cycle today!