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What is Recycling and Why Should We Recycle?

Doing Our Part for the Planet

With growing awareness and concern about the environment and the impact of human activity on Earth, many of us are considering what more we can do. Many local governments offer recycle many items through pick-up services, along with the trash pick-up. Some areas have non-profit and other organizations that assist with providing drop-off locations, sorting, and delivery to other facilities that re-use the materials. Wherever you live, finding out more, and how to do your part is the first step. Once you have the information about resources in your area, you can establish a plan for your household about what to recycle, how to sort it efficiently, and what to do with it each week.

What is Recycling?

recycle paper

The definition of “recycle” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “to pass again through a series of changes or treatments, such as to process (something, such as liquid body waste, glass, or cans) in order to regain material for human use…to reuse or make (a substance) available for reuse for biological activities through natural processes of biochemical degradation or modification.” Essentially, it’s converting materials that would otherwise be discarded as garbage into useable materials. For example, office paper that is recycled may be processed to create more office paper, paper towels, toilet paper, or other paper products. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans can be recycled to create other plastic and aluminum products. Polyester and other fibers from old clothing can be recycled into the fabric for new clothing. Broken electrical devices can be broken down, and materials within can be recycled for reuse. In some communities, even electronics can be recycled. In other words, more materials can be recycled than many of us realize.

Centuries of Practice

While it seems like a relatively new concept that gained momentum in the 1970s around much of the world, reusing items has a much longer history. Various ways of reusing items and materials have existed in some form for thousands of years, dating back to 400 BC or earlier.

Historical Evidence

Digging into history has revealed a lot to us about the people, communities, and practices of centuries past, including how people have used and reused materials. Archaeologists have revealed that people were melting and reusing glass starting in the Byzantine era in present-day Turkey. Other similar practices that archaeologists have discovered include melting bronze coins for conversion into statues by the Romans, and, throughout time, reuse of metals, pottery, and other waste during times of war, famine, and other stress.

The Industrial Revolution

Before the Industrial Revolution began in the western world, it was commonplace to reuse household items, such as glass and aluminum. The primary motivation during those times was to use recycled materials rather than new, raw materials for economic efficiency purposes. After the Industrial Revolution, in parts of the world facing the massive changes with the onset of technology and efficient production of goods in factories, it was convenient and sometimes less expensive to simply dispose of items in favor of purchasing new products.

Impact of World Wars

The onset of world wars had a dramatic impact on the use of materials, with resulting fluctuations in the practice of reusing materials. During World War II, the shortage of materials such as metal and rubber used in warfare led to the need for conservation and reuse of materials back home. This practice during that time was considered patriotic, with campaigns in many nations to conserve fiber and donate metals, while reusing at home. After World War II, on the other hand, there was a shift. While some countries continued reuse efforts due to a lack of resources because of the war, other countries faced a decline in the conservation of materials. In the United States and other countries, landfills provided an inexpensive way to dispose of items seen as trash, and the recycle trend declined.

Present-day Movement

The environmental movement that started in the 1960s in the western world, along with a rise in energy costs, led to increased awareness and concern for the environment and conservation. This, in turn, promoted an economic incentive to conserve materials once again. It was during the 1970s that the concept of curbside pick-up of used items was first initiated, which led to this common practice starting in the 1980s. The first city in the United States to recuse was Woodbury, New Jersey. This initiative prompted many other cities to follow suit, establishing successful programs aimed at reducing waste.

Why Should We Recycle?

Reusing materials in new products is beneficial in a multitude of ways. At one end of the spectrum, using recycled materials for new products means that fewer raw materials are being used, which helps us preserve our natural environment. At the other end of the spectrum, we reduce the amount of waste we produce that winds up in landfills and oceans.

Preserving Our Environment and Natural Resources

Wood, metals, petroleum for plastics all require extraction of those materials from the source: trees through deforestation or harvesting of cultivated trees, metals through various mining practices, oil for petroleum and plastics through drilling into the earth. These extractive practices each have potentially negative impacts on the environmental ecosystems they come from. Soil, water, air, the animals and humans that live near these areas can suffer from the negative impacts of deforestation, pollution, chemical by-products used in the extraction practices, and the long-term economic stress of “boom and bust” economies. Reusing or repurposing previously extracted, used materials for processing into new products cuts down on the impacts of the extractive processes required for acquiring new materials.

Reducing Waste in Landfills and Oceans

trash on the beach

While throwing away items removes them from our homes, offices, and yards, these items must be taken somewhere. If not recycled, anything we discard will be taken to a “dump”, waste yard, or landfill. This means more landfills, and greater risk of contamination of soil and water, which we rely on for growing our food and for clean water to drink.

The United States is the number one trash-producing country in the world, with each person creating 1,609 pounds of garbage each year. Worldwide, we dump 2.12 billion tons of waste annually, with hundreds of truck visits to each landfill each day. Calculated over the lifetime of each person worldwide, this is an unbelievable amount of garbage that must go somewhere, and this means that there are more landfills, dumps and raw garbage each year that either does not break down at all or decompose at a very slow pace. Plastic, for example, can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Some items, such as batteries, lightbulbs, and thermometers, contain toxic substances that end up in landfills, increasing the risk of contamination of our water and soil.

The Problem With Landfills

rubbish dumps problems

While it may seem that our trash is out of sight, it’s a lot closer than many of us realize. In the United States alone, there are about 2,000 landfills across the country. Typically, each landfill can only remain open for between 30 and 50 years, with another 30 years of monitoring required by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure public health. During a landfill’s lifetime, the impacts on surrounding communities are noticeable, with methane stations to burn the gases that waste produces, dump truck noise and wear on our roads, and air pollution and odors from the garbage. Once a landfill is closed, there is a delay during the monitoring before that land above it can safely be considered for potential use by people for housing, parks, and other community needs. Add to that the impact on our oceans that we hear about increasingly, and the negative effects of trash seems insurmountable.

Part of the solution is to recycle used materials. By doing this, we both reduce the negative impacts of resource extraction, and we create a more livable environment for all of us and future generations.

What Can Be Recycled?

Much of what we use daily can be recycled and, in many communities, picked up at your curb. For curbside pick-up, you can usually recycle rigid plastics, such as bottles and other containers. Most paper and cardboard products are recyclable, including cereal and other dried goods boxes, phone books, magazines, mail, newspaper, cardboard boxes, and office paper. Recyclable metals include tin, aluminum and steel cans and containers. Any glass food containers and jars, beverage bottles of different colors can be recycled.

What Can’t Be Recycled?

Depending on where you live and the services available in your area, some items cannot be recycled curbside, and you may have to deliver them to a recycling center that accepts them. Checking online, you can find the services provided in your area by the city or county where you live, and by any non-profit, store, and other organizations that also provide those services.

There are some items that are not generally recyclable, including Styrofoam egg containers, take-out containers, and cups; loose plastic bags and stretch wrap; soiled food containers and paper products; broken or sharp glass, batteries, light bulbs. Commonly, many pick-up services do not take these items or broken electronics. In these situations, there are sometimes other options available before you decide to throw something away.

Other Options

In some communities, there are more extensive services provided, either by the city or county or by a local store or organization. Some cities provide pick-up services for certain items, such as electronics, on designated days or at designated locations regularly, or have designated drop-off locations for certain items such as batteries, light bulbs, and electronics. City websites, and information included in garbage collection billing notices provide details about when and where you can drop off items not picked up at the curb. In addition, there are trash removal organizations in many communities that accept drop-off of items not picked up by commercial, municipal, or county curbside services. Those organizations have the staff, volunteers and equipment to dismantle, sort, recycle, and relocate for reuse many materials that are otherwise considered not recyclable.

If you do have an organization nearby that recycles, their website will include a list of what they accept and can include materials such as packing materials, electronics, batteries, light bulbs, clothes, a variety of plastics, and more. If you do not have an enhanced processing center near you, you may call your local hardware or home improvement store, as they often accept and recycle used lightbulbs and electronics. Before you discard these materials, check online for possible options near you.

Compost Food and Yard Waste

Yard and food waste make up a significant portion of the trash that goes to landfills. Some cities offer pick-up or accept drop-off of compost material, such as yard waste and trimmings and food waste. Also, some non-profit organizations, community gardens, and local farmers accept compost material, to be used for soil development in food production and landscaping. Increasingly, people are researching and trying their own home composting to cut down on waste and provide rich soil and natural fertilizer for their gardens. The many methods of composting are detailed in books and online for those who are interested.

Give It Away

Keep in mind that many items that you no longer need may be useful to someone else. Household items, clothing and shoes, parts left after a home remodeling, and construction materials are in demand by those in times of need. You can drop off these items at resale donation centers, churches, non-profit organizations, and volunteer-based affordable housing construction organizations. Some of these organizations will provide pick-up services if needed. Reuse of items is another way to recycle and plays an essential part in our conservation of the planet and healthy communities.

Organizing Your Recyclables

The internet abounds with websites providing creative ideas for planning and organizing your recycling efforts at home. Setting up designated bins for each type of recycled items, helps you recycle more efficiently. If you set up areas of the house, for example, a designated closet, to store broken electronics or used light bulbs until the designated pick-up or drop-off day to recycle those items and getting them out of your way will be more efficient. Coordinating with neighbors to take turns handling drop-off of certain types of recyclable items can save everyone time and help encourage each other to recycle more.

Toward a Better Environmental Future

Returning to the ways of yesteryear, of reusing and repurposing items, fixing what breaks instead of discarding, helping neighbors and working together, using only what we need, we can minimize the need to send garbage to the dump. While we can re-use some items or find a new purpose for them, when we recycle, we perform another very important part of the solution to a healthier planet and healthy communities.