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Going Green

America Recycles Day 2012

by Michael Evans 16 Nov 2012
America Recycles Day 2012

Recycling bins; Credit: © Shutterstock

The United States, perhaps rather unfairly, has the reputation as being the world's biggest throwaway society, yet it is one of the few countries of the world that has a particular day set aside each year as a National Recycling Day.

It was 15 years ago, in 1997 that 15th November was first set aside as America Recycles Day, with the aim of helping Americans to become better informed about the importance of recycling and buying products made from recycled materials.

This message certainly seems to be getting home to people. Back in 1960 only around 7% of municipal solid waste was recycled in the US, whereas today more than a third is either recycled or composted. This is a five-fold increase.

Municipal solid waste, rubbish, trash or garbage, call it what you will, includes all the everyday items that we use and then throw away; in fact anything that people no longer want. The range is vast and among the list will be:

  • packaging material of all kinds

  • lawn clippings and other garden refuse

  • old furniture

  • clothing

  • glass containers including bottles

  • food scraps

  • newspapers and magazines

  • worn out or redundant electrical appliances

  • paint

  • used batteries.

    Rubbish will come from everywhere, including homes, schools, hospitals and businesses.

    Traditionally this was all dumped into holes in the ground known as landfill or in the case of coastal areas it was often taken out to sea to be dumped, but over a period of years four things happened:

  • society began to generate more rubbish

  • the possible places for dumping it began to get filled up

  • it was realised that much of what was being thrown away could be used or reclaimed

  • we it was also realised that some items like chemical waste and even torch batteries were too harmful to simply be dumped into holes in the ground.

    Concern was also raised that many items that were being dumped in the ground, such as plastics, would take many centuries to decompose.

    We are talking about enormous amounts of rubbish. In 2010 Americans generated some 250 million tons of it, but at the same time they managed to recycle or compost 34.1%, which was about 85 million tons. This was obviously a considerable achievement when compared with the mere 7% that had been achieved nearly 50 years earlier.

    On a personal basis it was estimated that in 2010, on average each American generated 4.43 pounds of waste each day and managed to recycle or composte1.51 pounds of it.

    Recycling involves the recovery of useful materials such as glass, plastic, metal and paper. This can then be remanufactured to make new products, thus reducing the need for new raw materials.

    The amount of energy saved can be considerable. In 2007 the amount of energy saved from the recycling of US municipal rubbish was the annual equivalent of:

  • the amount of electricity consumed in 17.8 million homes

  • 29% of US nuclear electricity generation

  • 7.9% of US electricity generated by fossil fuels

  • 11% of energy supplied by US coal-fired power plants

  • the energy supplied by 2.7% of the crude oil imported into the US

  • the amount of gasoline used by almost 11 million cars.

    Recycling an aluminium drink-can saves enough energy to power a television set for three hours, but recycling a ton of these cans will save energy equivalent of 36 barrels of oil or 1,655 gallons of petrol.

    Americans use a lot of drink-cans but unfortunately millions of empty cans are simply thrown away. It is estimated that the number of drink cans that end up in US landfill in three months would provide enough aluminium to rebuild the entire US commercial air fleet.

    Recycling also reduces emissions that affect global warming. For instance, using recycled glass consumes 40% less energy that using raw materials to make glass.

    Composting involves the collection of organic material, such as food waste or garden refuse, which is then processed and used for agriculture or horticulture, thus reducing the need for artificial fertilisers.

    For America Recycles Day 2011, Barack Obama pointed out to Americans their responsibility to ensure that future generations benefit from having an abundance of natural resources and a healthy planet. In order to meet this obligation, he said, it is important to consume carefully, recycle a wide variety of products and materials, and to reuse whenever possible.

    This responsibility extends to everyone all over the world. We are all citizens of the planet and we all need to be aware of the need to conserve our precious resources, but every year at this time the people of the most powerful nation in the world receive an extra special reminder.

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