You can just dump it in the trash can and forget about R. But your city or town has a much harder time getting rid of it. Most communities cart their garbage off to landfills or burn it in incinerators. These solutions, however, create their own problems. And it’s destroying wildlife areas, says Lana Thomas of the Indigo Mountain Nature Center in Lake George, CO.
Landfills (huge garbage dumps) can poison the earth and groundwater as some of the garbage leaks dangerous chemicals into the ground. The world’s biggest landfill, Fresh Kills near New York City, leaches about 2 million gallons of toxic ooze a day. The methane gas released from decomposing landfills contributes, some experts believe, to global warming.
Incineration spews fine particles of toxic substances into the air that can enter human lungs and contribute to many problems, according to some scientists, from learning disabilities to cancer. The gases released in the burning process contribute to acid rain. This process also destroys only two-thirds of the trash. It leaves behind the last third as dangerous, toxic ash to be disposed of.
Clearly, dumping and burning all these materials doesn’t really make sense. After all, we always need bottles and paper and cans. And we can always reuse other materials in new products. When we toss these things away, we use more of the earth’s limited resources to make these products all over again. Recent figures indicate that American cities and towns recycle about 11 percent of their trash. Experts think we could recycle up to 80 percent of our solid waste if we worked at it.
True, recycling has some problems of its own. But let’s take a look at some currently recyclable materials to see how they could help us reduce our garbage:
* Glass. Returnable bottles can be used on average 19 times before they must be melted down to use again. Imagine how many bottles that reuse would keep out of the garbage can. And if everyone recycled all their nonreturnable glass – those empty mayonnaise and applesauce jars and ketchup bottles – we could reduce our nation’s garbage by 7 percent. Furthermore, making new glass from old takes about 30 percent less energy than making glass from scratch. Some states – such as Oregon and Washington – have put a ban on nonreturnable bottles.
* Paper. Paper represents a whopping 41 percent of our garbage, but, sadly, at present only about 25 percent is recoverable for recycling.
We are pretty good at recycling newspaper. Although newspaper is only about one-tenth of our noncommercial solid waste, it represents one-quarter of all our recycled waste. Although some newspapers are recycled into newsprint, most become cardboard, insulation, animal bedding, and cat litter. But the demand for old newspapers is expected to soon explode. Some experts predict that by the end of the ’90s a shortage of old newspaper may actually occur.
* Yard Waste. Leaves, Christmas trees, grass clippings. Although yard waste takes up a huge 18 percent of our landfills, it may be the easiest type of waste to do something about. Many families and communities are composting: piling up these organic materials so they can decompose into mulch. Mulch is an invaluable product that can prevent erosion and supply nutrients or fertilizers to gardens everywhere.
* Aluminum. Refunds on beverage cans have helped push our recycling rate of these cans to 65.5 percent. Aluminum is a recycling success story. Making new cans from bauxite is 10 times more expensive and uses 19 times more energy than turning old into new. In fact, the energy you save by recycling one aluminum can will operate a TV for 3 hours.
Despite its obvious improvements, recycling is only a partial solution to waste. To change tires into asphalt or newspapers into greeting cards or cat litter, a new production process is needed. Our present process uses up a great deal of energy and materials. And, sometimes, the materials include chemicals that can be dangerous.
Waste Not, Want Not
The best – and easiest – solution of all? Waste reduction: not producing so much garbage in the first place. This is something to consider as you watch the store clerk put a single can of soda or one paperback book into a plastic bag. That plastic can clutter the environment for the next 500 years because it does not decompose.
It’s easy to reduce the amount of garbage you produce each day when you start thinking about it. Thirty-two percent of America’s garbage is packaging. We may get so caught up in these fan packages that we forget that plastic wrappers and bright-colored cardboard have little to do with the product inside them. Juice boxes, for instance, might be an easy way to carry a drink around. But once those few sips are through, you’re left with a cardboard box and plastic straw. Think about putting a vacuum bottle in your lunch bag.
While you’re at it, how about putting your lunch in reusable plastic containers or cloth bags, instead of paper bags and boxes you throw away? How about bringing your own tote bag or knapsack or bookbag to the store instead of getting a new bag each time to take your purchases home?
Of course, consumers aren’t the only ones who have to clean up their acts. Industries and businesses have even more to learn. Even here you can make a difference. Every time you buy something, you are giving the people who manufacture it your vote of confidence. You are saying, “I like what you do. Keep doing it.” Use this vote wisely. When you buy notebooks or napkins made out of recycled paper, for example, you’re telling all companies you like the idea of recycling paper. You’re also helping create a way for recycling to become profitable.
Every time you refuse to buy something, you are also sending a message. Manufacturers will not keep making a product that does not make money. If, for example, enough people refuse to buy juice boxes, companies won’t make them. if enough people say they will not buy an item until the manufacturer becomes more environmentally aware, the message will be sent-and received.
It’s easy to feel a little helpless in the face of our current environmental problems. But you can make a difference. And your involvement can start the very next time you put your soda can in the recycling bin.
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