Throwing Away Treasures

A year or two ago I read an article which predicted that some day in the future our decedents will mine old garbage dumps and landfills to recover items we throw away today. This is one vision of the future which would appear to have zero chance of coming true. However, as I dug deeper into the article I found that the author’s premises weren’t so weird after all; in fact, they really made a lot of sense.

Deep down we all know, but seldom remember, that the earth’s resources are not inexhaustible. While new ways of drilling for oil have lately increased production so uch that gas and oil products now cheaper, but everyone knows that one day we are going run out of oil. When that happens we will hopefully have better, cleaner sources of energy to drive our vehicles, but oil is also the product from which many things are made, including most plastics. When our oil runs out, will we still be able to produce these products?

In addition, every day we throw away countless tons of old machines, appliances and electronic equipment. One day when the ores from which we currently produce metals we use everyday grow scarcer, we may need new sources of copper, aluminum, steel, gold, silver, etc. to produce the products on which we have learned to depend. Unless by then we have learned how mine the asteroid belt inexpensively, old garbage dumps and landfills may be the must profitable sources of raw materials.

So the bottom line is that every day we are throwing away resources which our decedents will treasure. Why? Basically we are lazy and/or we have come to view recycling as some kind of liberal conspiracy, or more likely it is because a lot of people simply don’t think it is necessary. I have some experiences which illustrate these factors well.

At work we had a large number of people on a floor stacked in cubicles like most office setups with a central break area containing tables and chairs, a large refrigerator and microwave ovens. One my colleagues, we’ll call him Jim, who apparently wasn’t satisfied with our company’s recycling efforts, brought to work a very large cardboard box which he lined with a large black garbage bag.

Jim set this box near a back wall in the break room, very close to the tables, and posted a sign on the wall above the box which read, “Please put your recyclable items here” The sign also contained a list of items which fit that description. Jim’s plan worked pretty well. Because it was convenient, at least some people using the break room would put their empty soda cans, paper and cardboard trash, used plastic items, and even empty glass bottles in the box during the week. After quitting time every Friday Jim would remove the plastic bag containing the recycled items, replace with a new bag and then take the full bag home to be deposited at his curb to be picked up by his community’s recycling company.

However, there was one persistent problem. Some people started throwing their leftover food from their lunches in Jim’s recycle box instead walking a few steps further and throwing the food in the recycle box instead of the trash can several steps away which emptied every day by the cleaning staff. As you can imagine, the food not only created a mess in the recycle box, but since the box was not emptied every day, it cause an odor and sanitation problems as well. In addition, Jim’s recycler, as per normal procedures for such firms, refused pick up recycled items which contained food residue. So Jim would have to clean out the items to be recycled before putting them out on his curb.

Well Jim, who had great faith in basic goodness of human nature, assumed that some people were using recycle box to deposed their left over food simply because they weren’t paying attention to what they were doing. So he taped a big sign on the front of the box saying, “NO FOOD Please” in large letters. The situation improved some, but evidently some still persisted in throwing food in the box. Jim even caught a couple of people about to scrape the leftover food from their plates into box and asked them kindly to put that food in the near by garbage bin. They did, but Jim said later that they weren’t real happy about it. Eventually after trying everything he could think of, Jim gave up and brought his recycle box home never to be returned. He told me later that he half believed that some folks were throwing food in his box on purpose to subvert his recycling efforts. In the Alabama, the most conservative state in the union, it wouldn’t surprise me if a few people believe that recycling is some kind of sinister government plot.

However, I think the real problem is that manyy people don’t think recycling is necessary. After all we live in throw away society. Raw resources are still available and unlike a hundred years ago when many items were made by hand, modern manufacturing process are so efficient that most items we buy have become relatively inexpensive. Items which many years ago were repaired several times during their useful lifetimes are now thrown away and replaced when they wear out or break. I can remember a little boy making visits to the local shoe repair shop with my dad to have his shoes resoled or repaired. Now there are few such shops left because most people simply buy another pair of shoes when the soles wear down. Many years ago electrical items were often repaired rather than thrown away when they quit working, but that rarely happens any more and the same is true of many of the items we buy. If most items are so worthless when they are no longer useful that they can be thrown away, why would people think that it is necessary to recycle?

Another thing I observed at work convinced me that many people simply don’t believe that recycling is necessary.   In every cubical our company supplied two small trash containers – a black one for non-recyclable waste and a blue one with a recycle symbol for paper and other recyclable items. The two containers usually sit side by side. It is amazing to observe how many people put all of their trash, including items which can be recycled, in the black trash container. When you consider that it only takes a quick conscious thought to determine if something about to be thrown out can be recycled or not, it becomes obvious many people simple don’t think it is worth even that small effort.

However, even those who made that small effort were sometimes not rewarded. I was working late one night in my office on night when one of the cleaning staff dropped by to empty my waste containers. I knew from experience that the cleaning staff brought two large wheeled containers with them when they came around to pick up waste, one in which they threw the regular trash and one for the recycled items. However, this person had only one container into which she threw my regular waste and my carefully recycled items. Caught off guard, I blurted out, “What in the heck are you doing! You’re supposed to keep recycled items separate.” Well, if looks could kill, I would have been a smoking cinder,” but evidently she was smart enough to realize that this manager who didn’t look happy could probably get her into big trouble. Her facial features soften into a smile and she said, “Oh, I separate it out later”. Yea, right, I thought, I’m sure you do that, but I’ll give her one thing, she could think on her feet. “Well, next time bring two containers with you so you don’t have to go through that trouble later” was my reply. She was just another person who thought recycling wasn’t worth the effort and was taking the easy way out.

We obviously haven’t done enough to educate people why it is important that they recycle. Perhaps if people understood why it is important, they would be more responsive. Here are some of the most important reasons why we should all be recycling:

1.  Recycling saves energy. Products made from recycled items require far less energy to produce than those made from raw materials. For example, making new aluminum cans from recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy than making them from aluminum ore. Each time we recycle one aluminum can we save enough energy to run a TV for three hours. By recycling paper we save over 170 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity a year.

2.  Recycling saves landfill space which is getting more expensive every year. The average American discards seven and a half pounds of garbage every day. Some states have run out of landfill space and are paying top dollar to ship their waste to other states.

3.  When waste is recycled we reduce water pollution by reducing the amounts of pollutants including cyanide, dioxins, mercury, methane, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and lead which leech out of our landfills into our ground water supply. Turning trees into paper is the most water intensive industrial process in the United States so recycling paper results in far less pollution in our rivers and streams. In a recent year recycling paper saved 290 billion gallons of fresh water.

4.  We reduce our use of limited natural resources such as oil, metal ores, trees, fresh water, etc. In the US when we recycle 13 million cars a year, we conserved 32.5 billion pounds of iron ore, 18.2 billion pounds of coal and 1.5 billion pounds of limestone. Such resources may be readily available now, but we need to save as much as possible for future generations.

5.  Recycling helps prevent global warming. Recycling just half of average household’s annual recyclable waste would prevent 2400 pounds of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere every year. Across the United States that amounts to 29.5 Trillion tons of CO2 a year which would not be pumped into the air where it would help warm our planet.

6.  Recycling is good for our economy. Last year in the United States the recycling industry process 191 million tons of material, had revenues of $236 Trillion a year and provided over 1.1 million jobs.

Still education can only do so much. Knowing that recycling benefits the greater good and future generations will only provide incentives for those of us who care about such things. It will do nothing for self absorbed people who care only about that stuff which directly benefit themselves. By and large we call these people conservatives. For them we have to provide tangible incentives to recycle.

When an industry which pulls in over $200 Trillion in revenue a year, it can well afford to reward people for recycling which has the potential of further increasing their profits. Across the country states and municipalities are exploring different ways to encourage their citizens to recycle. Eleven states have recycling taxes on beverages sold in bottles which are returned to the consumer when they bring the empty bottles back to the store for recycling. Some cities are starting to use chips in their curbside recycling containers which keep track of the weight of recycled items which allow them to reward citizens who recycle with every thing from lower utility bills, to gift cards and cash. Every location which has instituted such a program has seen a substantial increase in recycling.

Recycling is a winning proposition and we need to do a lot more of it in this country. For some, it is only necessary to educate them of the benefits to increase their participation. For nearly everyone, offering incentives has a tendency to drive up their participation.  Whatever it takes.

Cajun   4/17/15

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