Saturday, January 17, 2009

Trashed, Part Two


Recycling is one of those seemingly simple things, that becomes complex once you start to think about it. Sure, an aluminum can can be made into another aluminum can, but how does it actually happen? How does the can get sorted from all the other waste in the recycling bin, and find its way to a can-rebirth facility?

Recycling is also one of those things that it is pretty easy to dismiss or be cynical about. I remember hearing how, back in the 1990's, the citizens of New York City were fined for not sorting recyclables out of their trash. That seems fairly admirable, except that it later turned out (in a big scandal) that the so-called recyclables were just being dumped in the landfill. (I can't find a citation for this right now, but I'll keep looking.) New Yorkers were not surprised by this duplicity and corruption. After all, the Mafia had controlled waste removal since the 1950's.

My intern and I had been talking about how recycling programs vary in different parts of the United States. I used to say that when I freelanced all over the country that my questions upon arriving at a new place were
  1. Can you turn right on red?
  2. Can you buy beer on Sunday?
  3. And, what's the story with recycling?
Some states offer deposits for bottles and can, which does a lot toward keeping trash from accumulating on the roadsides. Dog-walkers are more likely to pick up that chucked bottle, if they'll be paid five cents for their trouble. Some municipalities offer curbside pickup for mixed recycling. Some places make you sort recycling yourself, which most likely means that people won't bother. Some parts of the country still act like we have unlimited resources, and that the trash can just be dumped, somewhere-or-other.

But how does it all work?

Robb found the following videos, which show -- in a geeky but fascinating manner -- just how all that recyclable waste gets sorted. I was struck by
  1. how energy intensive this process is
  2. how much they still rely on humans
  3. how expensive it must be to deal with all this waste
  4. what a gigantic amount of trash was being recycled


Heather said...

So, maybe you can give me some ideas...

Whenever I have an object that will be leaving my house via Waste Management, I look at it and determine if it's trash or recyclable. Organic matter goes into a mini bin, because I have so little of it. Anything with a recycling symbol goes to the recycling bin. Sadly though, there's always a HUGE collection that falls into neither group. I try to re purpose it, but most of it still goes to the trash and it makes me crazy. Any thoughts about keeping so much un-recyclable crap out of the landfills?

Anonymous said...

I am so glad to see these videos. We are in the Denver area and use WM. We do not have much trash now with all the recycables. I love not sorting.


. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...


I wish I knew how to reduce the volume of junk that ends up in landfill.

My own approach is to try to use less packaging, and fewer throw-away items. We use more rags and fewer paper towels. I blow my delicate allergy prone nose on actual cloth hankies.

I really don't know what the answer to this one is....

Ladyaero said...

I have spent most of my life in California and don't remember a time when recycling wasn't a habit. It was quite the culture shock, then, going to a tiny town in the middle of TN to visit some of my extended in-law family. There is no recycling with the trash there- if you want to recycle, you have to drive your items almost an hour away to turn them in. Needless to say, not many make the trip. It made me flinch every time I saw cans, plastics, paper, etc, going into the trash bins...we tried to minimize our contributions to it while we were there, but it was but a speck of sand on a beach of thrown away stuff. I am so grateful for the programs we have here.

Anonymous said...

The answer to this one is.... humans have to stop making so many more humans. Just in the U.S. there is one person born every 8 seconds !

Anonymous said...

This seems so obvious but I constantly see people stuffing unflattened boxes into the trash--big, cubes of cardboard holding AIR, taking up WAY more space than they would if they were flattened. It just isn't that difficult!

Anonymous said...

Being a New Yorker, I get so frustrated at our recycling. I almost fainted when Mayor Bloomberg announced that he was going to start recycling paper. We all thought "What the #&%%&? We've been sorting our recyclables for years!" As Lisa mentioned, it turned out that although we were sorting, the city wasn't spending the extra money on recycling. Gah! We now recycle paper, metal, glass and some plastic. I was impressed to see that Denver recycles 1-7 plastic. We only recycle 1-2 plastic. In such a concentrated area, it's really a crime not to do a better job with the waste management.



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