Our planet has a garbage problem. We simply consume too much and produce too much waste, while we reuse or recycle too little. What isn’t recycled is frequently placed in landfills, burned, or left where it can damage the environment.
In the United States alone, each person creates almost five pounds of trash daily. This translates into Americans generating approximately 230 million tons of trash each year. Only a fraction of this garbage — about 32 percent — gets recycled.
Recycling in the USA
Recycling has already had a strong impact on the way we manage waste. In the United States, 1,500 aluminum cans are recycled every second. Recycling one can saves 90 percent of the energy used to make a new can, and produces 95 percent less air pollution and 97 percent less water pollution. One ton of recycled paper pulp saves more than a dozen trees, and prevents large amounts of air pollutants from entering the ecosystem. Recycling is now legally required by many U.S. cities, which have realized the economic and social benefits.
Waste management companies — as well as individuals who get cash for trash — know that recycling can be lucrative business. As The GARBAGE DREAMS Game illustrates, the amount, type, and value of trash varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. Wealthier areas, for example, consume more and better (often disposable) products, and so produce more and higher-quality trash.
The Recycling Process
The recycling process typically includes the following stages:
- Mixed Waste: Garbage and waste of all types is collected and separated at a central sorting center.
- Commingled or Single Source Recyclable Collection: All recycled materials are separated from non-recyclable garbage. The recyclable material must still be sorted at a central sorting center.
- Source Separation: Waste is sorted by type and cleaned by each household. This is requires less work by the recycler, but requires more work for individuals.
At a sorting center the garbage is sorted into categories by material. Categories include paper (clear or colored); glass (each color is separately sorted); metals (aluminum, tin, and other metals); plastics (several types); electronic and computer waste; wood; batteries; and organic (food) waste. Some material, like plastic bottles, can be sorted by machines, other material, such as metals, can be picked up and sorted by magnets. Other materials need to be sorted by hand.
Once sorted, materials are sold to reprocessors who have many different methods for processing materials. Prices for recycled material vary for many reasons, including the demand for the raw material, the cost to process it, and even taxes based on policies about how to handle the materials.
Other Waste Disposal Techniques
When garbage is not recycled, it is processed in other ways including landfills and incineration. Both landfill use and incineration have serious environmental problems. There is less available land for landfills and fewer landfills available to accept wastes. The landfills that are open are often far away from the locations that produced the garbage, requiring trucks and barges to ship the garbage long distances. Some landfills have had contaminants from the garbage leak into the ground water, contaminating the community’s water system. Burning garbage increases the amount of greenhouse gasses, adding to global warming and putting invisible pollutants into the air.
Once garbage goes to a sorting facility and is sorted, the different materials are taken to different recycling factories where different processes turn them back into raw materials. These are some of the ways that material is recycled:
- Paper is separated into types.
- Washed with soapy water to remove inks.
- Mixed with water to create “slurry. ”
- Different materials are added to produce different types of paper products (e.g. cardboard or newsprint).
- Giant rollers spread the slurry into thin sheets.
- The paper is dried and then ready to be used.
- Aluminum is sorted and cleaned at the aluminum processing plant.
- It is melted.
- The melted aluminum is made into large blocks called ingots. (Each ingot contains enough aluminum to make 1.6 million soda cans.
- The ingots are rolled out at a different factory.
- These rolls are used to make aluminum products, from cans to chocolate candy wrappers.
- In a glass treatment plant, the glass is sorted by color.
- Glass is washed out.
- The glass is crushed (turned into cullet).
- Cullet is sent to another facility where it is mixed with other materials such as limestone and ash.
- The cullet is melted and shaped into new products.
- Now the glass can be used again (and again).
There are many different types of plastics and some are difficult or impossible to process. Many recycling plants can only recycle plastics labeled #1 or #2. Some plastic (plastic #3) containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is highly toxic. It cannot be mixed with other plastics for recycling and if incinerated, it can release dangerous toxins (dioxins) into the atmosphere.
Recycle, reduce, reuse
- Focus on renewable resources — do more with less.
- Put pressure on product manufacturers to create products with materials that can be recycled. Write letters.
- Promote the repair and resale of used products.
- Support legislation that eliminates subsidies for harvesting new resources.
- Support legislation that gets the U.S. to move toward a zero-waste society.