Does recycling seem like an antiquated concept, or at least something that's just not important to you? Maybe, maybe not. But consider this: In
one year, the energy conserved by the current level of recycling saves enough energy to power nine million households for a year.
There are many different types of products that can be recycled. This article focuses on four of the most common categories of recyclable items in your home or workplace.
About 1/3 of the waste stream that goes to landfills is paper, which is a real shame since there is a strong market for recycled paper. Reusing more of our waste
paper would help us reduce the acres of forest land that are being clear cut every year to provide paper in its myriad forms. To see how truly devastating the effects can be, check out the OnEarth article The Tennessee Tree Massacre.
Beyond recycling whatever types of paper your locale or office building accepts, you can help ensure a continuing demand for raw recycled paper by buying office paper, paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper that are made from recycled paper. Look for the highest possible percentage of "post consumer content." You may also want to take a look at our article about the paltry levels of recycled paper in mail-order catalogs.
Of all the things that are typically recycled, aluminum is king. According to the Aluminum Association, producing a recycled-aluminum ingot takes less than 10% of the energy required to produce an aluminum ingot from raw ore.
Unfortunately, according to the Container Recycling Institute, over one trillion aluminum beer and soda cans have been thrown in American trash bins over the last three decades. Used-can recycling rates improved greatly in the first two decades of that period, but over the last decade the percentage of cans recycled has been decreasing—from 65% in 1992 to 48% in 2002. The
US EPA notes that American consumers currently throw away enough aluminum to rebuild the entire US commercial airliner fleet every three months. Look—up in the sky—it's a bird—it's a plane—it's aluminum waste!
If we can do a better job of recycling our aluminum cans, we can save energy and avoid some of the environmental damage caused by aluminum mining and manufacturing, including the release of tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gasses and toxic air and water pollutants.
Recycling one glass jar saves enough energy to light a 100-watt light bulb for four hours. Although access to curbside recycling has steadily increased, the percentage of glass containers being recycled has been stagnant since the mid-1990s.
The types of glass that are usually recycled vary. Although glass containers are usually fine, sheet glass, glassware, and other non-container types of glass are often not accepted at recycling centers. Check with your city or county.
SOURCE: Container Recycling Institute
The above graph tells an unfortunate story. We're using more and more plastic bottles, and we're throwing more and more of them in the dump. Plastic waste takes a long, long time to biodegrade, and recent research has shown that if it end up in bays or oceans, plastic can break up into micro-sized plastic particles and contaminate the marine food chain. We can do better!
Whether it's plastic, glass, mixed paper, or aluminum, it's best to check with your city or county recycling office (or their web site) to see exactly what types of each item they actually recycle. Programs vary widely across the country. If your collection agent can't recycle something, putting it in the recycle bin anyway will only bog down the system.
One last thing. We've decided that the high value of aluminum recycling is a great reason to drink twelve cans of Coke every day. Waaahhhhhooooo!