Trash Talk

In most of the world, including North America, we do one of two things with garbage: burn it or bury it. Neither one is good for us or for the environment. Across the nation, landfills grow, cities choke on pollution, and water contamination damages the quality of life for people who didn’t formerly suffer this health problem. Just a few years ago in my community of Pueblo, Colorado, the city government announced that it would remove all the recycling bins due to lack of funding. So there went the good intention of getting our citizens to recycle and help out the environment. To many, the programs here remain difficult to implement, expensive, time consuming, or sometimes just not worth the hassle. Something needs to happen to get Pueblo and other cities on track with recycling.

The first thing more city governments need to realize is that recycling benefits everybody in the economy, and it’s good for the environment. It adds value to materials, contributing to a growing labor force that includes but is not limited to materials sorters, dispatchers, truck drivers, brokers, sales representatives, process engineers, and chemists. These jobs usually pay above the average national wage, and many are in inner city urban areas where job creation is vital. It’s also worth remembering that recycled products are usually more budget friendly than non-recycled ones.

Conversely, and of greater long-term consequence, the effects of not recycling are becoming so harmful that they can no longer be ignored. Excessive influxes of garbage developing in landfills and the vapors emanating from them can be toxic, sometimes even deadly. Access to potable water will be humanity’s biggest environmental concern over the next few decades, and leaving people with nothing to drink due to polluted water will be disastrous to several cultures. Water and other dwindling resources due to unwarranted waste will lead to skyrocketing prices. The effects of not recycling will be devastating to the ecosystem and to the health of all living things. Economies will suffer as a result.

For certain countries not recycling or taking a serious stance on recycling, the negative effects are already beginning to show or will do so soon enough. For instance, experts have warned that by the year 2018, the United Kingdom will run out of landfill sites in which to bury its waste. Consequently, UK taxpayers face the possibility of fines and penalties if waste is not reduced. In light of situations like this, one must wonder why Americans are treating a potential ecological disaster with indifference given such obvious warnings. Our future generations shouldn’t have to deal with such consequences.

italy recyclingSeveral countries are moving in the right direction regarding smart recycling policies. When stationed in Northern Italy, I received a citation from the city for not following directions and placing my trash in the correct location, which definitely made me learn about recycling. Being used to the garbage laws in Colorado, I didn’t understand the recycling programs in a foreign country. Italian recycling was actually easy, efficient, and required by law. The disposal service furnished households with containers labeled for glass and aluminum, paper and cardboard, plastics, and organic waste. Easy-to-follow instructions came with the first service that explained when, where, and how to divide the materials. My recyclable trash items were picked up weekly outside of my house without any hassle and cost about $15 a month.

Recycling programs in Europe make sense and are always easy to understand. Everywhere you go, you’ll see bins marked for what needs to go where. You just drop your waste in the corresponding bins. No doubt, recycling in Italy is easy and efficient compared to some places here. In my Pueblo West community, my trash disposal cost is almost $20 per month, and this doesn’t include recycling. To recycle, we have to use our own containers, take it to a recycling center at our convenience, and pay the place to take our recyclables — not a very practical strategy.

Sweden has been so efficient with their recycling programs that they are now basically garbage free. In fact, since they have run out of their own garbage, they are taking in trash from neighboring country Norway, and they plan to import waste from other problem countries as well. Only 4 percent of all waste in Sweden is actually landfilled. Its citizens incinerate most of its garbage to create electricity and heat. They even send back the remaining ashes to Norway to be discarded in their landfills, and Sweden receives payment for this process.

Swedish recycling

Some American cities have implemented smart recycling policies. San Francisco has achieved the highest recycling rate in the United States. Generally, urban American recycling programs are deemed successful for reaching a 30 percent diversion rate. The diversion rate is a definition of how much material is diverted from disposal to recycling. San Francisco exceeded its much higher goal and has reached 80 percent diversion. If the people of San Francisco can hit that goal, then a smaller community like Pueblo should try to reach a similar diversion rate. San Francisco succeeded in this regard through innovative policies, financial incentives, outreach, and education. By creating recycling programs and enforcing certain regulations for households and businesses throughout the city, Pueblo can also become a “green” community.

As points out, three main steps in the recycling process need to occur in order to create a successful systematic loop: collection; processing and converting the raw material into recycled products; and purchasing recycled goods. All three steps must happen to make the process complete. The main idea is for citizens to purchase recycled products and recycle the products when no longer in use. This preserves raw materials and reduces landfill build-up. defines the steps in greater detail as follows:

Step 1: Collection

Some popular collection methods include curbside service, drop-off centers, buy-back centers, and deposit / refund programs. However, collection methods will vary from one community to another. After collection, the recyclables go to a materials-recovery facility and are sorted and prepared into marketable commodities and sold to processing companies.

Step 2: Processing

The recyclables get cleaned and sorted. Then, they’re processed for raw material retrieval. The raw materials then become part of recycled-content products. Recyclables must be broken down into basic elements before becoming part of new materials. However, the processing methods vary for different materials. Some recyclables are melted and remolded into new commodities. Other recyclables must be crushed or shredded in order to be transformed into new products.

Step 3: Purchasing Recycled Products

More recycled products are hitting the market, stimulating the Green Revolution. Both individual consumers and those working for small and large organizations play a crucial role in growing recycling systems throughout the country. Greater demand will lead to greater production within the recycling industry.

When restaurants have an efficient compost system to get rid of food wastes, they lower the amount of trash in the city significantly. Restaurants face many challenges when switching to a compost system, so they have to find ways to fit more bins, staff hours, and expenses into daily routines. Residents and schools would also have to commit to the composting program.

If the city and businesses would replace public trash containers with color coded recyclable containers, more people would get involved in the recycling habit and even start doing it in their private homes. Recycling is not a difficult task. The extra step it takes to throw an item away takes half a second when the recycle bins are already in place and organized. If the item thrown away is plastic, toss it in the plastics container. If the item is paper, place it in the paper container. It’s just that easy.

Living overseas and experiencing how simple and practical recycling can be makes me wonder what we’re missing here in America. Recycling is no longer just important and beneficial. It’s necessary. It’s also common sense to not want to leave behind non-degradable waste on the planet we inhabit now and for future generations to come. If you can’t go to your capital and demand new recycling policies, you have to start somewhere. Why not start with your community, where you can make an impact?