Sunday, January 23, 2011

Litterbugs, Part Three - Recycling

A couple of years ago, my daughter's elementary school class went on a field trip to the local recycling center. I came along as one of several parent chaperones. I was very interested in seeing the place.

I had been recycling for years, but always wondered: where does this stuff go after curbside pickup?
Why, it goes to the local recycling center!

Where I live it's called Eco-cycle, and it's located on the far edge of town. It is enormous. Recycling trucks haul their loads into a huge garage area, and from what I could tell, empty them right on the floor, as in the lower-left quadrant of the above photo.
Next, an automated system separates containers like cans and bottles from paper products. They wind up on conveyor belts, where humans sort the stuff into more specific groups.
Needless to say, the kids found it totally fascinating. So did I.

After watching all the conveyor belts take stuff to and fro, we were escorted into a meeting room and our heads were filled with factoids.

Recycled cans, compressed and stacked
Over the last fifty years, we learned, humans have consumed more resources than in all previous history. The way we produce, consume, and dispose of products and food accounts for 42% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 33% of paper, 25% of oil, and 15% of coal.

This data all come from the EPA.

On a more positive note, about a hundred million people in the United States now practice some sort of recycling every single day. This is good. But recycling, in and of itself, is not enough; it will not end our dependence on landfills and incinerators.

This optimistic Eco-cycle graphic imagines the future
The goal promoted by Eco-cycle is Zero Waste. This is laudable. Discarded stuff, they argue, should be seen as a valuable resource. "A pile of 'trash' represents jobs, financial opportunity, and raw material for new products," they declare.

"Zero waste is a philosophy and a design principle for the 21st Century; it is not simply about putting an end to landfilling ... it heralds fundamental change."

Like the rest of the world, my town has a long way to go before fully embracing this fundamental change. Recycling is big here, but we have a town dump, too. To say nothing of litter: the crushed cups and cans, fast food wrappers, cigarette butts, and on and on.

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