We all know that this country produces quite a lot of "stuff." Goods and services, we’re the economically-dominant country in the world. U.S. corporate power makes, the world takes. But with all this production, all these goods, comes a need to dispose of what we consider to be no longer useful. Some of it is in fact useful, some of it isn’t. But the fact is, we throw away a lot of stuff. Compared to the rest of the world, we dispose of goods much like we market them –tremendously disproportional. Each American produces about 4.4 lbs. of trash every day, costing our municipalities a total of $23 billion annually; this is far more waste than that of any other Westernized nation. (Columbia Encyclopedia.). But there is a good, or "not so bad," side to this: a sizable portion of this refuse is single-substance, recyclable material. Considering this fact and our continuously-shrinking landfill space, numerous local governments began some years ago to adopt recycling programs. It was seen as a necessary solution to reduce further waste.
We recycle many different materials now. One which we are all familiar with is paper. Most recycled paper is a mixture of post-consumer waste, which is simply used paper, and pre-consumer waste, consisting of unsold magazines, newspapers, and the like. While there is certainly nothing wrong with making new product out of leftover paper, it is a tremendous waste to continuously produce pre-consumer waste- that is, constantly producing much more than will actually be sold – especially when that margin of excess is expected in every circulation. It would cut down costs and energy of printing presses everywhere – as well as countless trees – if the publications would only produce as much as they expect to sell. Furthermore, it is imperative that the use of 100% recycled paper becomes the norm; when the paper is only a fraction recycled, it is still largely dependent on virgin wood to manufacture the paper. There is no need to accept 25% or 35% recycled, because 100% serves most purposes completely. To save energy and to save trees- and all the animals that depend on the trees- it is imperative that recycled paper become the norm.
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Recycling aluminum can reap great benefits as well, reducing monetary as well as environmental costs. To make cans from recovered aluminum, for example, requires 10% of the energy needed to make them from virgin ore. This simultaneously saves ore as well as the pollution resulting from mining and processing. One of the more dangerous and subtle forms of pollution from normal aluminum extraction is the byproduct of Fluorine. Fluorine is the most reactive element on the Periodic Table. Many scientific studies have found it to be an endocrine disrupter (Connett). Endocrine disrupters like this one mimic estrogen and are suspected of causing breast cancer, low sperm counts, early puberty, and interference with fetal development (Quinion). Furthermore, this fluorine (as we know it, in fluoride form) has been found to leech lead from pipes (Masters). It is very dangerous to expose oneself to, especially through ingestion. Yet it is continuously released into water systems under the pretense of helping to clean teeth.
Considering these major benefits – or, rather, avoidance of risk- of recycling aluminum, it is a travesty that there aren’t enough recycling containers around. Aluminum’s recycling rate, in fact, has not significantly increased since the recycling was first widely implemented in 1990. As a result, aluminum is wasted along with its subsequent processing costs. While we hardly ever see recycling cans on the street, aluminum cans are constantly being trashed- as 500,000 were in 1997- costing the aluminum industry millions.
Plastic recycling is key in reducing waste. It actually began in 1976, and it took many years for it to advance to be able to make as many products as it does: utility crates, carpeting, paintbrush bristles, clothing, and so on. Plastic can also directly save trees, as in the new plastic lumber industry. Unfortunately, the recycled plastic must be mixed with a significant amount of virgin wood fiber, as it stands now – but it is still certainly an improvement over pure virgin forest lumber. But with all this plastic recycling technology, it wasn’t until 1994 that the industry was actually able to make new plastic bottles out of the used ones. Whether the plastics industry does or not is a different story; Coca-Cola, for instance, which pledged years ago to use recycled plastic in their bottles, still does not do so. Largely as a result, 64% of all used bottles become litter, as there is simply not enough use for the plastic ("Coca-Cola Campaign"). Plastic recycling is very important and useful, but it still has a long way to go.
Recycled glass has a variety of uses- even mixed-color glass, which is normally considered undesirable for manufacturing purposes. It can be mixed with asphalt for skid resistance in road surfaces. It can also be used as blasting abrasive, posing less danger to use than silica sand ("Best Practices – Glass") as well as in concrete and even in decorative landscaping. It is also widely used for various construction purposes. However, it does not seem to be able to be remanufactured into more glass bottles.
Steel recycling, especially from cars and trucks but also from food cans, is very economically as well as environmentally advantageous. Manufacturing steel bars from scrap steel requires 74% less energy and 50% less water, while reducing air-polluting emissions by 85% and mining wastes by 95% (mining does, after all, comprise 39% of our total waste). In 1997, more than 13 million vehicles were recaptured and recycled ("Steel Recycling for the Environment"). Because steel is so recyclable, it is one of the most cost-effective materials in the auto industry ("Facts and Figures: Automotive Recycling"). Unfortunately, each scrapped car leaves 34% of it in plastic junk. Though advances in technology are trying to recycle this plastic, shredded into fluff, the shredding industry isn’t large enough to manage the amount of scrapped cars. In fact, California classifies this plastic fluff as hazardous waste ("Legislation and Recycling").
There are many more aspects that must be improved in the recycling area. For example, one common use for so-called "recycled" wood waste is for temporary road surfaces- that is, for logging roads! As long as we continue logging, we are not recycling to any true degree. Another common use for scrap wood is to burn as so-called biomass fuels ("Quality Specifications for Biofilter Media" 2-24-00). But burning biomass for fuel creates an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere, and scrap wood is not in any way a renewable resource.
Now, recycled rubber has many uses. In addition to tires, it is also remade into roofing material, truck tire flaps, floor mats, garden hoses, and shoe soles, among other uses. Unfortunately, only 7% of used tires are recycled (with 11% going to terribly-polluting tire fires)("Waste Tire Recycling Technology"). But there are new technologies that are showing promise. Natural Reaction Technology, for instance, can process used tires so that, in addition to being separated into its component rubber, steel, dirt, and fiber, the rubber can be in such fine granules that it is equivalent to new rubber for manufacturing purposes- at a price that can compete with raw rubber ("World’s first major breakthrough"). This could greatly expand the rubber-recycling industry.
Another type of product, packing material – which typically exists to be thrown out after one use – has undergone some significant changes. This can be seen in fully-recyclable padded envelopes and usage of newspaper rather than Styrofoam as filler, both of which have become much more common in recent years. Even Styrofoam "peanuts," which emit CFC’s, don’t compose for many thousands of years, and so frequently annoy us spilling everywhere, have an alternative: Eco-foam. It’s made from corn and decomposes in water — biodegradable enough to become mulch, and yet just as strong and shock-absorbent as traditional plastic material.
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