Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours." 
~ Denis Hayes

There are times in life when we come across goods that we can neither reduce, nor reuse. This is not the time to panic, however. Most towns and cities in our fair country offer another option: recycling. In this process, goods are broken down into their component parts and reformed into new items. After this process they can reenter the system of goods, they are literally being put back into the cycle, or re-cycled. This process is of the utmost importance as it keeps resources from leaving the system, creating less demand for virgin materials. Plus if all of our recyclable items were put in a landfill they wouldn't break down for centuries, millennia, or with some materials, infinity. According to an article from Waste Management World, the residents of a city in the UK called Newcastleunder-Lyme, are "asked to sort their waste into nine separate receptacles." The article goes on to say that this is possibly taking recycling a bit too far.* I agree with this conclusion because my experience has shown that when being environmental becomes too much of a burden or hassle, people are less likely to participate. But if citizens are given the resources necessary to recycle and they are educated about its importance, recycling programs can do a great deal to help minimize wastes and conserve resources. In most U.S. cities recycling is already available, so now I am going to outline some of the most commonly collected materials and the importance of choosing to put these in the recycling bin rather than the trash can.
Glass is one of the most important materials to recycle because it never decomposes. Once glass is glass it will remain so forever, so once it makes it to a landfill it will never again be able to contribute to our planets resources. The upside though, is that glass can be recycled an infinite number of times without ever losing its strength and most every recycling company will take this material.
Plastics will decompose, but depending on the type they can take anywhere from a few centuries to a few millennia to do so. Luckily they can be recycled, but not infinitely. Reducing our use of this material is important in this respect. There are also different availabilities of plastic recycling centers, depending on the type of plastic you have. Check with your local agency to see what plastics they can take. Then, you can check the type present in your goods by looking at the numbers that look like this:

If you want a better understanding of what differentiates these different plastics, the following link gives a brief, but detailed explanation for each one:

If you don't want to delve into the little details though, it's a good rule of thumb that the higher number plastics are more difficult to recycle and therefore there are fewer plants that can do so.
Paper is another easily recyclable product, but the sad fact is this: paper makes up more bulk in American landfills than any other material. How is this possible? While individual homeowners have been picking up the recycling trend, many companies see it as an extra effort or added cost. It's much easier to throw everything into one waste bin than to separate it into two. If you work for a company that doesn't recycle, I encourage you to research the recycling opportunities in the area. Most drop-off locations are limited to private use only and will not accept corporate materials, but many companies will offer free pick-ups if your company disposes of a lot of recyclable materials or if there are multiple pick-ups in a similar area.
The company I work for uses a significant amount of glass and plastic bottles to collect the samples that we test. Since our bottles must be sterile before use we can't reuse them, so after we finish with them we dump out any remaining sample and throw them away. We throw away enough bottles in a year to fill a small landfill I'm sure, so I asked my boss if he had ever considered scheduling a recycling pick-up. I was shocked when he told me that they had tried to do so several times before, but that our collection wasn't enough to constitute a pick-up on the part of the companies, and they wanted us to drop them off. A drop off would require extra gas, mileage, and labor and therefore wasn't approved through the corporate office. So now, we just throw everything away. Since I already recycle at my apartment, my challenge to myself this week is to try to research recycling pick-up companies in my area and what volume of goods would be enough for a pick-up. My thought is that if I can get other companies in our business complex to recycle as well, it may make it more appealing to the recycling company to come to the one area for multiple stops.
          Purchasing recycled products is another important part of this cycle. Often, the efforts involved in the recycling process add a marginal increase to the cost of the products. Because of this, people are more drawn to products made from virgin materials, simply because they are less expensive. Without a market for these products, however, the entire cycle shuts down and recycling is no longer a lucrative option. While you may be paying a bit more for recycled products at the cash register, these products are creating great savings in the way of environmental degradation and resource loss that we would have to pay for as a society later on.

* "How Many Recycling Bins is Too Many?" Waste Management World. February 17, 2011.

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