We Live In a Dirty World

There’s no getting around it; we live in a dirty world.

It's time to stop trashing our planet.

Did you know that the average American produces about 4.5 pounds of trash per day, according to the EPA?

About 40 percent of that is paper, from food wrappers to newspapers. Yard trimmings make up about 12 percent, and food scraps 11 percent. Plastics account for nearly another 11 percent, followed by metals, rubber, leather, textiles, glass, wood, and so on.

By my math-challenged calculations, for the 314 million Americans, that totals about 1.4 billion pounds of trash--per day.

That is an incomprehensible number, to me anyway, especially when you consider that most of the “trashed” items are made from raw materials that will eventually be depleted.

It is even more incomprehensible when you consider that most of the “trashed” items could have been recycled.

It gets even dirtier when you consider that a great majority of that trash goes into plastic bags that end up in landfills--and eventually the land for landfills will run out, too.

Oh, and lots of the stuff that ends up in landfills shouldn’t be there, like household chemicals, aerosol spray cans, paint, etc.

It’s not just the average American who trashes things that could be recycled.

Did you know that of the dozens of different metals used in construction and industry, only about half are recycled, at a rate of about 1 percent, according to Waste Management World magazine?  The rest are used, then discarded.

These metals appear in everything from water pipes to flat screen TVs, from electrical appliances to home construction.

An article in the waste management magazine also noted that the stockpile of materials such as copper is estimated to equal the amount of mineral ores in the earth’s crust. So we’re using about as much as we have left; eventually, it seems like that equation will catch up with us.

Recycling seems like a sensible thing to do, a no-brainer.

But there are complications. For homeowners, there’s a space issue. Having separate bins for glass, metals, paper, plastic, aluminum…well, you get the idea; it takes a lot of room.

Then there’s the dedication issue; can you get the whole family to dedicate themselves to the rather tedious and sometimes a little messy job of keeping everything separate?

Then, if you can overcome those obstacles, what do you do with the materials? Does your local waste hauler provide a curbside recyclable pickup service, or do you have to load the bins several times a week into the family car (messy!) and take it to your local sanitation department--if they provide such a service?

For waste haulers, it’s the bottom line. There hasn’t yet been a huge return on investment that makes them want to jump for joy when someone mentions recycling. Many provide the service reluctantly because more and more customers are demanding it.

Then, of course, some customers wonder if their recycled items get to their proper recycle location--or just end up in the landfill with the rest of the trash.

The good news is that people are beginning to take notice and recycling is picking up.

According to a 2009 EPA report, the most recent I could find, it was reported that between 2007 and 2009, the total U.S. municipal solid waste decreased from 255 million tons to 243 million tons. That’s still a lot of trash, but at least it’s a downward trend.

Approximately 9,000 community curbside recycling programs existed in the U.S. in 2009, up from 8,875 in 2007.

Business and industry are starting to see the opportunities in recycling too. “Urban mining” of materials such as copper and other valuable metals are becoming an economically attractive alternative to mining limited resources in the ground.

Urban mining is when used materials are salvaged and recycled. For example, when buildings are torn down, all the copper pipes, wiring, and other recyclables are harvested rather than being bulldozed and hauled to, you guessed it, the landfill.

There are things people like you and I can do, too.

At my house, we have a modest three-bin recycle container for plastic, cardboard, and aluminum cans. We take the cardboard and plastic, along with magazines and newspapers, to a nearby city recycle center; we take the cans to a local recycle area that pays for aluminum, and my son gets to keep the proceeds--he is learning the economy of recycling firsthand.

It is amazing how much this little initiative keeps bulk out of the trash can. We’ve been able to go from two curbside trash cans to one, and we don’t always fill that one up.

A friend of mine often said he approached big problems like he’d eat an elephant--one little bite at a time.

Trash is a big, big elephant in our world, and while big things have to happen to make it better, we can also gnaw away at it, too, one little bite at a time.

So does anybody have any ideas that average people can use on a daily basis to help reduce our trash footprint? Share some of your recycle stories with PRB readers!

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Peachtree City, Ga.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.