Beyond Recycling: Getting to 'Zero Waste'

Scrap cars on docks awaiting export in Liverpool, England. i i

hide captionScrap cars on docks in Liverpool, England, will be exported to foundries and metal merchants abroad. The global price of scrap and recycled metal has soared due to the scarcity of raw materials and demand from China and other developing countries.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Scrap cars on docks awaiting export in Liverpool, England.

Scrap cars on docks in Liverpool, England, will be exported to foundries and metal merchants abroad. The global price of scrap and recycled metal has soared due to the scarcity of raw materials and demand from China and other developing countries.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Recycling Facts

• Recycling a ton of paper saves 17 trees, two barrels of oil (enough to run the average car for 1,260 miles), 4,100 kilowatts of energy (enough power for the average home for six months), 3.2 cubic yards of landfill space and 60 pounds of air pollution.

 

• Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every three months.

 

• Recycling creates six times as many jobs as landfilling.

 

• Recycling glass instead of making it from silica sand reduces mining waste by 70 percent, water use by 50 percent and air pollution by 20 percent.

 

• Recycling just one aluminum can saves enough energy to operate a TV for three hours.

 

• The energy saved each year by steel recycling is equal to the electrical power used by 18 million homes each year — or enough energy to last Los Angeles residents for eight years.

 

• If every U.S. household replaced just one roll of 1,000-sheet virgin fiber bathroom tissues with 100 percent recycled ones, it could save 373,000 trees, 1.48 million cubic feet of landfill space and 155 million gallons of water.

 

Sources: Eco-Cycle, Environmental Defense Fund, Colorado Recycles, Steel Recycling Institute, Seventh Generation Co.

Recycling newspaper and plastic can only go so far toward achieving a "zero-waste" world, recycling activist Eric Lombardi says. The next step, he says, is getting industry and government to work together to make going greener more profitable.

Lombardi has been into recycling ever since his first job — at his father's computer card company in the 1960s.

"We used to go to the local paper recycler with the old punch cards and he used to pay my dad for the old cards," he says. "I looked at that and went, 'I thought that was trash.' And my dad's like, 'Oh no, they make paper out of paper."

Lombardi, who now directs the nonprofit, Eco-Cycle, in Boulder, Colo., says the community has a comprehensive approach to creating "zero waste or what we call darn-near." That is, "to try and recover darn-near everything in your trash can because it's all made out of some basic materials: metals, plastic, glass, paper," he tells Steve Inskeep. "The next revolution," Lombardi says, is organic material to make compost for soil.

Boulder's Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM) opens its doors to one new material each year. The center takes in a variety of items, including porcelain sinks and toilets, home audio equipment and cooking oil. "We collect a lot of strange things at the CHaRM," Lombardi says.

The 1987 story of the Long Island barge that floated for thousands of miles because no city would accept its garbage led to the perception that there is a landfill crisis, Lombardi says.

"We never had a landfill crisis," he says. "What we have is a resource-efficiency crisis. There are resource wars going around the planet right now to get the raw materials that are being destroyed in our landfills and our incinerators."

The resources include trees in Indonesia, minerals in Africa and oil in the Middle East, he says. "It is not easy to get resources anymore."

"Getting us close to zero waste means that we need to work with industry to start designing their products and packaging for recovery rather than for the dump," Lombardi says.

In Europe, for example, automakers have been nudged by law to increase the materials that can be recycled in their cars, he says.

"Actually, big business understands this better than big government does," Lombardi says. "We're waiting for big government to get the concept here that waste is expensive — it is inefficient. So I look very much forward to the captains of industry getting together with the leaders in government and creating a system so that greener becomes more profitable."

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