Most individuals in today's society know that recycling plays an important role in managing the waste generated in homes and businesses, and that it reduces the need for landfills and incinerators. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, "in the year 2000, the United States recycled over 66,600,000 tons of materials" (USEPA, 2000). However, many people are not aware of all the materials that can be recycled, or of how the recycling of those materials aids in helping the environment. Recycling is far more than a local waste management strategy; it is also an important strategy for reducing the environmental impacts of industrial production.
There has been a problem of waste from man's earliest time. Even as far back as 1388, when the English Parliament banned dumping of waste in ditches and public waterways, there have been issues with how waste is removed, and how to best deal with it (Barbalace, 2001). In 1690, the Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia began the U.S. venture into recycling by creating the first paper from recycled fibers (Barbalace, 2001).
In 1842, a report on disease in England linked disease to filthy environmental conditions. This was the beginning of the "age of sanitation," when countries began to study waste removal, and began to develop new ways to deal with the problem. Shortly thereafter, in 1874, a new technology called "the Destructor" provided the first methodical burning of refuse in Nottingham, England. In 1885, the United States followed suit, building its first incinerator in New York (Barbalace, 2001).
Many of the original ways to reduce waste proved to be more harmful than good. In the early 1900's, for example, "piggeries" were developed. "Piggeries" were large pig farms in which the animals were fed fresh or cooked garbage, thus eliminating some of the waste. However, by the mid-50's, an outbreak of vesicular exenthama resulted in the destruction of 1,000s of pigs that had eaten raw garbage. Around that same time, the U.S. opened a slew of waste reduction plants for compressing organic wastes. Those plants were later closed because of noxious emissions (Barbalace, 2001).
At the beginning of the 20th century, solid waste was disposed of by dumping it onto vacant land near where it was generated. These dumps were then periodically set on fire to reduce the organic content. Not only did the smoke become a nuisance and a health hazard, but the low, uncontrolled burning temperatures did not get rid of enough organic materials. Disease-carrying animals also inhabited most dumps (Compton, 2000).
The situation began to improve by 1965, when the first federal solid waste management laws were enacted. By 1968 companies began buy back recycling of containers (Barbalace, 2000). In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was created and in 1976, the Resource Recovery Act was enacted. This Act encouraged states to formulate solid-waste recovery plans. Many states set up special departments to assist local communities in their recycling efforts. Some communities adopted legislation that gives consumers the option of returning containers in exchange for a small deposit paid at the time of purchase (Compton, 2000).
Today in the United States, more than 150 million tons of solid wastes are generated every year. This amounts to more than 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) per person per day. In metropolitan areas, the daily production of solid waste is usually higher. Residents of New York City, for example, discard 26,000 tons of solid waste daily -- almost 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms) for each resident (Compton, 2000). Due to this high amount of waste, recycling has become a major part of environmental policy, largely due to the increased costs of solid- and hazardous-waste disposal, the scarcity of natural resources, and the growing concern over polluted land, water, and air.
There are two types of recycling operations: internal and external. Internal recycling is the reuse of materials that are a waste product of a process, such as in the metals industry. External recycling is the reuse and breakdown of materials from a product that has been worn out or rendered obsolete. For example, the collection of old newspapers and magazines for the manufacture of new newspapers would be external recycling (Compton, 2000).
Domestic recycling efforts usually involve the retrieval of materials associated with disposable products, such as packages, bottles, and labels: external recycling. The list of recyclable items is endless, but includes glass, plastic, foil, paper, aluminum, steel, and even printer cartridges (O.E., 2002). Many gardeners recycle organic, biodegradable kitchen scraps by mixing them with leaves and grass clippings in a compost mound. There, the organic material decomposes and is transformed into usable soil nutrients (Compton, 2000).
Business recycling efforts are usually internal, but can also include external recycling. Steel manufacturers, for example, now melt down the scrap metal by products of their factories, and use it to create new metal sheets. Clothing factories often reuse the scrap cloth from their other products to create new products. Internally, many manufacturing plants have sponsored can and bottle recycling efforts for their employees, as well as donating old office equipment to local charity, avoiding dumping those materials into landfills (SBRP, 2001).
The recycling efforts of both consumers and businesses have resulted in many positive effects on the environment. One such benefit is that of the conservation of energy. Energy savings may be the most important environmental benefit of recycling, because using energy requires the expenditure of limited fossil fuels and involves emissions of many air and water pollutants.
Supplying recycled materials to industry, for example, typically uses less energy than supplying virgin materials to. Most energy savings associated with recycling amass in the manufacturing process itself, since recycled materials have already been processed at least once. According to the Northeast Recycling Council: "The 417,000 tons of paper, glass, metals and plastic Connecticut recycled in 1995 saved a total of about 4.8 trillion BTUs of energy, equal to nearly 3% of all energy used by industry in the state, or enough to power nearly 24,000 homes," (NERC, 1999)
Some cities simultaneously solve energy-shortage problems and the need to dispose of waste by converting that waste into energy. This is done by pyrolysis, the burning of refuse with a shortage of air. Pyrolysis permits recovery of certain fuel gases, chemicals, and heat energy (Compton's, 2001).
Another benefit of recycling is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases produced by industry threaten the global climate, and can cause that climate to change. Recycling reduces those emissions because much of the energy used in industrial processes involves burning fossil fuels. These fossil fuels are the most important sources of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions into the environment. By recycling, manufacturers reduce the processes, therefore reducing the emissions (NERC, 1999)
In addition to greenhouse gases, recycling can reduce pollutants from entering the air and water. This benefit is again due to the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and because recycled materials have already been processed once. Also, recycling keeps materials out of landfills, where they can introduce pollution into groundwater systems. Recycling also keeps those materials out of incinerators, where they can emit pollutants into the air and into ash residue (NERC, 1999). Recycling has been shown to produce less of 27 different types of air and water pollutants, compared with using virgin materials in manufacturing and disposing wastes (USEPA, 2000)
Still another important result of recycling is that it helps to conserve the world's natural resources. By using scrap materials instead of trees, metal ores, minerals, oil and other new materials, recycling reduces the need to expand forestry and mining production. Recycling also reduces the need for landfills and other disposal facilities, allowing local lands to be used in more environmentally preferable ways (NERC, 1999).
In order to achieve these environmental benefits, recycling programs must be…