Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Talkin’ Trash

According to the EPA, from 1960 to 2007, the amount of ‘stuff’’ Americans threw in the trash nearly doubled from 2.7 pounds per person per day to 4.6 pounds per person per day. How much do you put in the trash on a daily basis? Have you ever even thought about it?

To make that statistic a tad more frightening, nearly a third of what we put in the trash is paper and paperboard… generally lightweight stuff. So now imagine converting that 4.6 pounds per day to volume when over a pound and a half of the total is paper. No wonder our landfills are filling up. There are now 1,794 landfills in the United States, down from 20,000 in the early 70’s. You can work out the math if you’d like, but a simple overview says it all: We’ve nearly doubled output and cut the place to put it to less than ten percent of what it was. Think that’s a problem?

Granted, we’ve learned a lot and have made great progress during that same timeframe in recycling. Aluminum recycling has become streamlined to the point that we shouldn’t need to mine any more bauxite. Ditto on newspapers and paper products. (Of course the internet is slowly tolling the death knell for newspapers, so maybe we won’t have to worry about them clogging our landfills in the future, but that turn of events is fodder for a blog on another day.) Unlike aluminum which can be recycled indefinitely, paper can only go through the process until the fibers are unusable, and each generation of recycled fiber creates a lesser product. Simply put, you start with clean, white office grade paper and end up with toilet paper or pressboard. You can’t recycle paper ‘up’ the quality chain, but the process is certainly worthwhile. Glass is another trash component that can be recycled indefinitely.

Besides saving space in our increasingly scarce landfills, recycled materials use less energy to manufacture new products. Recycled aluminum uses 95% less energy to make new cans than its virgin ore counterpart. Recycled glass melts at a lower temperature and uses 50% less energy in the process. Recycling one ton of paper saves 7000 gallons of water. Energy savings and landfill savings make it seem like a no-brainer to me. To you?

In much the same way that the economic downturn has forced folks to buy less, it will also be a boon to reducing trash and improving recycling. As much as I’d like to see a return to economic stability, the conservationist in me is smiling at the inversely proportionate nature of cash and trash. I’ve long been a proponent of usage-based trash collection. Today, I put out recycling, but not trash… just didn’t have enough of it. My neighbor put the maximum amount of trash allowed at his curb. We pay the same. We’re only going to really cut trash when the price goes up. And at the rate at which the landfills are filling up, I suspect that painful increase is right around the corner.

We need to take responsibility for our trash and reduce it. “Throw it away.” Where’s “away” anyway? Away from our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods, but it’s never away from our planet. Less in, less out… it’s that simple.