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THE NECESSITY OF RECYCLING

By Leanna Myers
  

Introduction

Humanity will soon be wallowing in its own wastes. The amount of garbage produced in the United States is the highest rate in the world, roughly twice as much per person as West Europeans and the Japanese. We are an extremely wasteful society. Currently, Americans produce over 208 millions tons of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) every year . That's about four-and-a-half pounds per day per man, woman, and child. And that number is growing. In just 3 years that number has grown by ten million tons.

These numbers are staggering. But the biggest problem, of course, is what we are going to do with all of this trash. Landfills in the U.S. have been closing at a rapid pace. We currently throw 53.3 percent of our trash into landfills which is only heightening their rate of closing. Between 1978 and 1988 14,000 (70 percent) of the United States?landfills closed. From 1988 to April of 1999 the total number of landfills dropped from a little over 8,000 to just 2,314. That means that about 20,000 landfills have closed in the past twenty years. Very few new landfills have been opened to take their places, partially because of stricter environmental regulations, and partially because of the NIMBY syndrome. This leaves one to ask, where is all of our trash going?

There are a couple of other options to the MSW disposal problem. Incineration has been growing in popularity over the past several years. Currently, the United States burns about sixteen percent of its garbage. Another choice we have is shipping it off to another state or country to dispose of. One may recall the "garbage barge incident?of 1987 in which a boat left New York City toting 3,000 tons of trash, sailed for 6,000 miles in search of a place to dump it, and was forced to return home with its entire load still onboard. Clearly, this disposal option is nearing its end as well.

The best solution to the problem is, of course, the three R's: Reduction, Reuse and Recycling. If the United States were to enforce a mandatory recycling program throughout the nation numerous problems would be solved. 85 to 90 percent of MSW could be recycled, ending our flood of waste. Recycling also is beneficial to the environment in multiple ways, is the cheapest known method of waste disposal, and is easy to implement. It is clearly the solution, the answer to our prayers.

The Story of Landfills and Incineration

Landfills seem to have become more of a hassle than they're worth. The state of Georgia has a mere 76 landfills remaining with an expected capacity of only ten years. Not only are they rapidly closing, but no one wants to own and operate them anymore because the job has become so difficult. In recent years the Environmental Protection Agency has pushed several new laws through Congress which regulate the operation of these trash heaps. It has been discovered that improperly sited, designed and operated landfills leak toxic leachates into our groundwater, which, if not controlled and prevented, can poison our drinking water and devastate the local environment. In 1964 a dump in Memphis, Tennessee contaminated the waters of the Mississippi River, causing a fish kill that stretched all the way down to New Orleans. New laws aim to prevent this type of thing, and landfill operators are now required to maintain their sites for thirty years after they reach capacity to be certain that these deadly chemicals do not leak out. This is a major reason that new landfills are not being formed; no one wants to have to pay the enormous costs that creating a new, regulation landfill creates.

In addition to the environmental problem of water pollution, there are also several other problems which landfills bring to an area. There is a constant presence of animals; rats, insects, raccoons, birds, and numerous other kinds of vermin feast on human waste. Because landfills are often constructed near airports, the birds can be a threat to human life. In October of 1960 a turbo-prop plane crashed, killing sixty-two passengers, because it flew through a flock of birds which were flying over the nearby landfill.

Finally, another enormous environmental threat that landfills create is that of air pollution. Between the one-and-a-half million gallons of gasoline used every year by the vehicles used to haul the garbage, and the emissions created from the decomposing wastes, landfills are among the top five polluters of our air. They created over 2.1 million tons of carbon monoxide in 1982 (2.9 percent of the total), 1,200 pounds of organic compounds (3.3 percent), 800 pounds of particulates (5.3 percent), and 200 pounds of nitrogen oxides (0.5 percent.) These numbers are likely to have risen since then.

Incinerators are capable of reducing solid waste by as much as 90 percent. Some simply burn the garbage, cool the ash, and then haul it to a landfill for final disposal. Others do this, and also recover the heat energy to generate steam and electricity. While this may seem like a great deal economically, any way you look at it incineration is extremely harmful to the environment.

Incinerators often create massive amounts of air and water pollution. Among the emissions into the air are carbon monoxide, lead, sulfur dioxide, and other acid gases. Waste to energy plants produce less air pollution, but they have other problems. Groundwater can become polluted through the ash that remains after combustion. The ash is highly toxic due to chemical changes that occur during the burning. Incinerators use water to quickly cool the ash after the fire dies. The water picks up these toxins and if it escapes the incineration plant it poses an enormous threat to the local environment. In addition, once the cooled ash is moved to a landfill it poses the threat of creating toxic leachates. As Paul Connett, a researcher and dioxin expert at St. Lawrence University says, "There's no such thing as a 'safe?incinerator. . . the better the incinerator is at protecting the air, the more toxic the ash is going to get.?o:p>

Facts About Recycling

In 1997 28 percent (61 million tons) of the nation's total MSW was recycled. By the end of the year 2000 that number is expected to rise to 30 percent. The state of Georgia currently boasts a recycling rate of 33 percent. Recycling is slowly growing as a method of waste disposal. According to the website for the EPA:

While recycling has grown in general, recycling of specific materials has grown even more drastically: 42 percent of all paper, 35.5 percent of all plastic soft drink bottles, 59.5 percent of all aluminum beer and soft drink cans, 61 percent of all steel packaging, 92 percent of all automobiles, and 64.3 percent of all major appliances are now recycled.

If we were to reach a slightly higher rate (35 percent) carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by 13.2 million tons. That's the equivalent of removing eight million cars from the roads.

The recycling we are doing has a huge impact on the environment and the waste disposal problem. For each ton of paper that is recycled, we save seventeen trees, 6,953 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, 587 pounds of air pollution, 3.06 cubic yards of landfill space, and 4,077 kilowatt hours of energy. In 1996 Americans recycled 42.3 million tons of paper. One ton of newspaper is worth $77. The business of recycling can be very lucrative.

Aluminum cans are the most frequently recycled wastes; almost two-thirds of cans are recycled. In 1993 that meant 59.5 billion cans. Making a new can from an old one uses 95 percent less energy and creates 95 percent less air pollution than mining bauxite ore and creating brand new aluminum. The recycled product can be back on the shelf, refilled in ninety days.

Glass is recycled at a rate of about 38 percent. Unlike some other recyclables, glass can be reused forever. We save over a ton of resources for every ton recycled, and glass production air pollution rates are cut by 14 to 20 percent. Energy use is also cut by about 25 percent.

Plastic is slightly more difficult to recycle because of the multiple types. It must be properly sorted for it to be worth anything after processing. Only about 20 percent of the nation's plastics are recycled, leaving almost twenty million tons of plastic in the MSW. Plastics currently make up about 10 percent of what we throw away by weight, and 20 percent by volume.

Success Stories

Throughout the country recycling rates have slowly been climbing. In 1990, environmental activists were hoping for a rate of 25 percent. Now the nation has passed that mark and currently lies near the 30 percent mark. According to the EPA's website:

Twenty years ago, only one curbside recycling program existed in the United States, which collected several materials at the curb. By 1997, 9,000 curbside programs and 12,000 recyclable drop-off centers had sprouted up across the nation. As of 1997, 380 materials recovery facilities had been established to process the collected materials.

Several states and communities have reached rates of recycling much higher than the national average. One school system consisting of eighteen schools in northwest Georgia created a program that placed separate bins by every trashcan for different recyclables. Within one year they reduced their waste by 58 percent. A pilot program in East Hampton, New York achieved a recycling rate of 84 percent. Wisconsin banned nearly 100 percent of recyclable materials from entering its landfills in 1995. In Seattle, the threat of the city's only landfill closing caused the government to create a "pay as you throw?program for waste, charging residents by the weight of their garbage. Partially because of this, and partially because of increased efforts to recycle, the city reached approximately a 60 percent rate in 1998. It is clearly a feasible goal for the U.S. to expect more from its people. A 100 percent recycling rate nation wide may seem crazy now, but it may be easier than one would think.

Finances of Recycling

Under the right circumstances, not only can recycling be cheaper than other means of waste disposal, it can also be profitable. It is estimated that incinerating one ton per day costs between $100,000, and $150,000. Recycling is estimated to cost only $10,000 to $15,000, and composting between $15,000 and $20,000 per ton. The money the government could save by increasing these more environmentally sound methods is phenomenal. According to John E. Young in his paper, "Discarding the Throwaway Society?

Rough calculations using conservative figures for capital costs reveal that an $8 billion investment in additional incinerators could allow the United States to burn one-fourth of its projected solid waste output in the year 2000, whereas the same sum spent on recycling and composting facilities could provide enough additional capacity to handle three-fourths of the nation's garbage that year.

Not only is recycling a cheaper option, it can also pay for itself and then some. The city of Portland, Oregon actually makes about $160,000 annually by recycling some of its wastes. This is achieved by selling collected, sorted and processed materials to manufacturing companies. Portland is lucky that it has found consumers for its recycled material. The biggest problem, the main reason that we have not already switched to intensive recycling nationally, is the lack of demand for these materials. The demand is not there because the price of these reused materials is higher than that of virgin materials. And the reason for this is the subsidies provided by the government to producers of virgin materials.

For decades the government has given money to miners and loggers in order to help keep these industries alive and the prices of their products down for consumers. Yet, for whatever reason, the government has neglected to create similar subsidies for the recycling industry as it has grown. Because of this, prices for recycled materials are higher, and therefore demand is lower, and sometimes recovered materials have to be sent to landfills or incinerators to make room for the new materials being collected. This is a sad cycle, but until the government creates similar subsidies recycling will not seem financially attractive to the general public.

Creating a Mandatory Recycling Program

It makes perfect sense for the government to create a mandatory program for recycling. If it waits too much longer it's going to have to anyway. Before long, all landfills will be closed, we will not have anywhere else to ship our garbage, and incinerators will be blackening our air and poisoning our water. Why not get a headstart on something will have no option on in a few years?

There are four main methods of recycling: curbside pick-up, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit and refund programs. Each of these methods has been successful in different parts of the country, and each is fairly simple to implement. All it is going to take is a little bit of effort by the government and by the people.

The first step is, of course, funding and subsidizing. The government needs to shift some of its funds to recycling programs. In 1987 New York's Newsday found state governments had spent 39 times as much on incineration as on recycling. These figures need to be reversed. In addition, subsidies similar to those provided for virgin materials need to be implemented for recycled materials in order to make them economically competitive.

Once enough facilities, enough demand for the materials, and strict laws requiring citizens to separate their trash have all been created, and the people have been educated, the rest will fall into place. Several communities already have mandatory programs and have reached recycling rates of 90 percent or more.

The federal government needs to take immediate action on this matter. Making recycling mandatory will not only solve the problem of consistently increasing solid waste, but it will have enormous benefits for the environment, and will either cost less or maybe even make money for the government. The times are changing, the situation is growing desperate, and the government needs to do something about it. >Recycling is the perfect solution.


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