Reduce, reuse, recycle. The mantra of environmentalists everywhere. It seems to be working. Americans’ recycling rates have risen every year for the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But even though rates are rising, we’re only recycling a little over one-third of our total waste. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
November 15 is America Recycles Day. As you toss your aluminum can into your recycling bin – and not the trash – think about this: gases like nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide -- which itself is recycled and reused – touch almost every aspect of the recycling process as items such as paper, metal, glass, rubber and plastics are transformed for reuse.
Last year in the U.S., about 67 percent of all paper produced was recycled. Once your shipping boxes and advertisements are collected, they ultimately go to a paper recycling center, where the fiber is shredded and mixed with water to make a pulp, which is then washed, refined, and cleaned. Because paper is naturally brown, one way to make white paper is to use ozone– basically an excited oxygen molecule – as an environmentally friendly alternative to chlorine bleach.
As for metal, most of what ends up being reused again and again is aluminum and steel. From your curbside bin, those tuna cans and old pans eventually make their way to giant furnaces that remelt them down again and again, to reshape them into cans or even cars. Oxygen plays a big part in that process, since the gas, which is pumped into both steel and aluminum melting furnaces, helps improve combustion, cut fuel consumption and reduce harmful air emissions.
And what about those ice tea or beer bottles clinking in your recycling bin? Did you know that glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly, without any loss in quality or purity? That so-called container glass just needs to find its way to a glass plant where it can be remelted – also in furnaces that use oxygen to boost efficiency and productivity – into a new container. So yesterday’s jar of pasta sauce will be transformed into tomorrow’s spice bottle!
Unlike metals and glass, plastics and rubber, like water bottles,takeout containers, and tires often can’t be remelted into new food or beverage containers. Theses items need to be reincarnated as completely different products, such as fences, lawn chairs or athletic field surfaces. After the plastics are collected and sorted, they’re shredded or ground into small pieces often with the help of cryogenic nitrogen to lower the rubber/plastics’ temperature to help it break more easily. From there, the chips are fed into a remelting furnace and extruded into new shapes or blended into raw materials to make the new products So the next time you sit on that plastic park bench, think about how many of your old milk jugs that got diverted from the landfill!
What about the stuff that doesn’t get recycled that’s got to go to a landfill? Some forward thinking companies pipe the landfill gas to nearby power plants to generate electricity, a process called landfill gas-to-energy. Other companies take the raw landfill gas, clean it and purify it for use as vehicle fuel.