Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why do We Recycle?

Yesterday, while walking home from the bus stop with my two boys, I told them about my new blog. They were confused by my concept that Earth is a "gift" that all of us leave to our kids, but perhaps that’s because they both have birthdays this week and they’re really hoping for a different type of "gift!"

When I mentioned recycling as a potential topic, my six-year-old commented, "I don’t think most kids get why we’re supposed to recycle." That made me stop and think. Recycling has always been part of his life. I assumed that this made kids natural recyclers, but maybe recycling has just become another requirement on the list of things adults make them do. "Did you put that bottle in the right bin?" might be the modern day version of the dreaded "did you take out the trash?"

So, why do we recycle? What would happen if we didn’t? To find some answers, I visited the EPA website and found some interesting statistics.

In 2007, Americans generated 254 million tons of trash. This is equivalent to 4.6 pounds of trash per person per day. That’s a lot of garbage. Of course, its worth noting that is more than any other country in the world, but that shouldn’t really be a surprise to any of us.

On a positive note, we recycled and/or composted 85 million tons or one-third of that trash. The first two Rs of the waste management cycle - Reduce and Reuse - are critical, but my son’s question was about recycling so we’ll stay on that path for today.

By recycling 85 million tons of trash, we get cleaner land (less trash in landfills), air, and water. The significant air and water benefits come from the reduced energy needed to create new products from recyclables, rather than raw materials. In 2007, recycling efforts reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 193 million metric tons. In terms a six-year-old can understand, that is the equivalent of removing 35 million cars from our roads!

But what about those other 169 million tons of trash from last year that we didn’t recycle? From a household perspective, Americans are actually doing fairly well with recycling, but other places – schools, businesses, hotels, restaurants, parks - frequently miss the mark. I was so surprised to find a compartmentalized recycling bin at my hotel in Sweden last year, I had to snap a picture.

Based on what I’ve seen in my kids’ school, I don’t believe they’re recycling in the classrooms so I’m going to make that my challenge for next week – to find out why and see what I can do to change it. What about you – are there any places you visit frequently that don't recycle? What impact can you have on that extra 169 million tons of trash?

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