Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Alternatives for Waste Management
Constance Kratzer, Family Resource Management Specialist
College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University
As a nation, we are generating more garbage all the time and we don’t know what to do with it. Ineffective or irresponsible disposal of this waste can pollute the environment and pose a health risk to the public. We are running out of space in existing landfills. Additionally, no one wants a landfill, incinerator or recycling center in their neighborhood.
There are two social forces contributing to our waste management problems. First, Americans have become a throw-away society. The amount of refuse discarded by American households is staggering, about 4 to 5 lbs. per person per day. Secondly, Americans generally subscribe to the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and LULU syndromes (Locally Unacceptable Land Use).
Waste disposal is an immediate, critical issue for communities all over the country. Citizens are discovering that there is no easy way to get rid of the garbage they once assumed could be buried or burned and forgotten.
Just as types of waste are changing, as chemically-based products multiply, so must our attitudes towards waste disposal change. Waste disposal costs are escalating and demanding an increasing percentage of community budgets. Current disposal methods threaten our health, safety and environment. Most industrial, commercial and household waste is now being placed in landfills or surface impoundments. Waste treated in this manner may contaminate groundwater, rivers and streams. When waste is burned, it releases hazardous gases into the air and leaves toxic residues in the form of ash.
Landfills which provided a deceptively simple solution are closing either because they are full or because they do not meet new federal or state standards. Siting of new landfills is difficult because of public opposition. As landfills close and costs of landfilling escalate, the pressure to incinerate mounts. Incinerators are costly to build, and they do not always meet favorably with public opinion.
People are beginning to realize that the solution lies in using garbage as a RESOURCE rather than refuse to be destroyed. Localities, by their own choosing, or by government mandate, are now choosing to recycle to reduce the waste stream. In New Mexico, the Legislature passed the Solid Waste Act of 1990 which set a goal of diverting 25% of New Mexico’s municipal solid waste from landfills by 1995 and 50 percent by July 1, 2000.
In order to manage waste, the EPA and the Solid Waste Act favor an integrated solid waste management strategy that includes parts: 1) reducing the amount of solid waste generated; 2) recycling as much refuse as possible; 3) environmentally safe transformation of waste; and 4) continuing safe landfilling.
Reducing and reusing are the most viable alternatives, however, no single method will solve the waste problem as effectively as a comprehensive program that relies on a number of solutions for different situations. Source reduction (elimination of unnecessary packaging, and buying and using fewer toxic products) and recycling are the methods of choice and the direct involvement of citizens is essential. Landfilling and incineration should be used only for the waste that cannot be used as a resource.
Even though solid waste management has not been a high priority of the federal government in recent years, the government could affect waste management in a number of ways: by establishing national recycling goals and packaging standards, adopting a clearly stated policy on source reduction, and implementing educational programs on all approaches to waste minimization. The federal government could also set an example for the states and stimulate markets for recycled products by recycled materials.
The U.S. is currently recycling only a small percentage of its waste. The benefits of recycling come not only from the sale of recycled materials and conservation of resources but also as a result of reducing expenses or from “avoided costs.” The savings derived from not paying tipping fees for landfilling or incineration of the materials which are recycled should be included in any cost/benefit analysis of recycling. The cost of extending the life of a current landfill or of closing an old landfill and developing a new one must also be taken in account.
The waste management problem is complex because it involves a multitude of scientific, technical, economic and social factors. Due to the complexity of the situation, it will require the cooperation of government, industry, and individuals working as partners rather than adversaries to find a long-term solution.
Reducing the Waste System
The character of New Mexico is the cumulative result of all the actions of the 1.8 million people who live here. New Mexico cannot move toward a more frugal use of its resources any faster than its people choose to move. The bottom line is that the waste you generate does make a difference. If you generate less, that too, makes a difference.
Reducing the waste stream is the most significant of all the options to manage waste. If we never generate the waste, then we do not have to devise ways to dispose of it. To reduce the waste we produce usually means lifestyle changes. Reduce the amount you buy in the first place. Purchase only the amount you need. By becoming better environmental shoppers we can reduce the waste we generate.
What Can We Do?
Each person adds to the waste management problem. If each household reduces its waste, the problem will be reduced. You can start by analyzing what you throw away at home.
Think about the goods, services you buy and the activities you support. In what ways do they contribute to the solid waste problem? How could you purchase and dispose of items in ways that generate less trash? What can you do to voice your opinion about solid waste issues in your community?
For example, consider:
- Buying goods in returnable and recyclable containers.
- Learning where you can take items to be recycled; then show your support by recycling.
- Reading labels and learning more about the contents in household products. Try not to purchase items with harmful ingredients.
- Letting store managers and manufacturers who are making good environmental choices know that you recognize and appreciate their efforts.
- Requesting larger quantities and sizes of products by introducing a bulk buying section for grains, pasta, and other dry goods.
- Using consumer hotlines provided as a service by many food companies. Explain the need for environmental shopping and why you support it. Companies are very interested in how their products are perceived by consumers.
Ask manufacturers to consider these areas when designing packaging:
- Plan for recyclability, both in design and material choice.
- Eliminate excessive packaging.
- Have more reusable or refillable packages.
- Use creative thinking to find less wasteful solutions to theft prevention and shelf marketing.
- Substitute non-toxic pigments and stabilizers.
- Design plastics for return and refill.
- Concentrate on the best and most efficient methods for minimizing the generation of waste.
These actions require cooperation among businesses, stockholders, government, employees, the general public, consumers and others. They also involve changes in lifestyles and values.
Select Durable Items
Select products that are durable, easy to repair, have good warranties, are energy efficient, functional, nonpolluting in both manufacture and use. Disposable items such as plastic plates, polystyrene cups, razors, pens, cameras, watches and other items all end up in the landfill. Invest in durable materials that you can use over and over again such as using cloth for napkins.
Some throw-away items that cause concern include:
Disposable razors. Annually, more than 2 billion disposable razors were bought in the U.S alone. Today’s disposable razors, made from plastic and steel can occupy space in the landfill for many years. Invest in a quality razor and change the blade or use an electric razor.
Disposable diapers. Disposable diapers are made of an outer layer of waterproof polypropylene plastic. Sandwiched in between the plastic and water repellent liner is a thick layer of and absorbent cotton-like material made from wood pulp. It is estimated that 75,000 metric tons of plastic and 1,265,000 tons of wood pulp are used every year to make disposable diapers in the U.S. About 5 million tons of dirty diapers are buried in landfills in the U.S. each year and consumers spend at least $100 million annually to dispose of these.
Batteries. Certain kinds of batteries are recyclable, however, many find their way into landfills or into incinerators where they should not be. Shop for the longest lasting batteries or rechargeable ones. Often batteries can be traded in when a new battery is purchased as batteries create a problem in disposal.
Tires. More than 200 million tires are discarded each year in the U.S. You can help reduce this amount by buying high-mileage tires and by maintaining proper air pressure in your tires. Remember to check tire pressure every other time you fill your fuel tank.
Paper products. Minimize use of paper towels, paper plates and napkins. Invest in cloth napkins for everyday use and use reusable wiping cloths, towels and plates rather than paper “throw aways.”
One of the best ways to reduce municipal solid waste is to limit packaging. Packaging comprises about 40% of the solid waste stream according to a Franklin Associates study for the EPA. It accounts for 50% of all paper produced in the U.S., 90% of all glass and 11% of all the aluminum. One dollar out of every $11 spent for groceries in the U.S. pays for packaging.
An item surrounded by polystyrene beads in a box that is inside another box that is wrapped in plastic may be very secure. However, all that extra packaging material (the cost of which is added to the price you pay for the product) generally ends up in the landfill. Buy items such as fruit, vegetables and dry goods that use little or no packaging at all.
Refillable & Resealable Containers
Use refillable containers. Many food cooperatives allow customers to bring their own containers to refill. Peanut butter, cooking oil, honey, shampoo, flour, nuts and many other products can be purchased in this manner. Invest in resealable containers for storing left overs; avoid using disposable plastic wraps, storage bags, and other such materials.
Buy food and dry goods in bulk sizes. Items with a long shelf-life such as laundry detergent, flour and dry pet food can be purchased in large-size containers. Avoid individually wrapped portions of items such as cheese, fruit, and juice servings which are expensive and add to the waste stream.
Concentrates and Less Processed Foods
Purchase concentrates and add the liquid yourself. Transfer to a small container(s) that can be used over and over. Eat lower on the food chain by using less highly processed foods. Foods in their natural or raw form have less packaging.
Buy Recycled Materials
No material is truly recycled until it is brought back into productive use in manufacturing and production. Consumer preference for products made from recycle materials can help “close the recycling loop” by increasing demand for collected recyclables. Look for a recycling symbol.
Buy Goods That Can be Recycled
Buy products in containers that can be recycled. If a product such as cooking oil or peanut butter is sold in a recyclable container such as glass and a similar container in a non-recyclable material, select the one that is most recyclable.
When you purchase items from the store, evaluate each one as to cost, convenience and environmental impact. In other words, how many pieces of material will have to be disposed of in the local landfill?
Use Appropriate Technologies
Use appropriate technologies, whenever possible, such as solar power to dry clothes and heat water, or “human” power to open cans or brush teeth. Recycle and cut back on items that use up nonrenewable resources.
Reduce Toxic Chemical Use
In minimizing the amount of toxic chemicals in the home, substitute less toxic commercial products or make your own less toxic cleaning materials. Contact your Extension office for information. Substitute manual pump spray containers rather than using aerosols. They are less expensive and the bottles can be refilled and used over and over. Home remedies can be prepared that will save money and reduce the need for costly disposal of household hazardous waste.
- Keep your oven clean by sprinkling dry baking soda, then scrubbing with a damp cloth after 5 minutes.
- Rather than use ammonia-based window cleaners, mix 2 T. vinegar with 1 qt. warm water and rub with newspaper.
- Unclog drains with a metal snake or plunger, rather than using toxic drain openers.
- Use cedar instead of moth balls.
- Use latex or water based paints. Donate leftovers to theater groups or shelters.
- Use dry oxygen bleach or borax instead of chlorine bleach.
- Instead of chemical furniture and floor polishes, dissolve 2 pt. lemon oil in 1 pt. mineral oil. Then apply and buff.
The idea of being wasteful makes many people uncomfortable. Yet most of us continue to waste because we can’t think of anything better to do with last year’s phonebook, draperies that are too short or a closet door that was scratched by a favorite pet. We are conditioned to think of things that are old, empty, worn, broken, ugly or marred, as useless so we throw them away without much thought to the consequences. Most Americans buy far more than they can use effectively as evidenced by bulging attics and garages.
The process of reusing is started with the assumption that the used materials that flow through our lives can be a resource rather than refuse. Waste, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. What is one person’s trash is another one’s treasure. If we really look at things we are throwing away, we can learn to see them as materials that can be reused to solve everyday problems and satisfy everyday needs. Most of us, however, haven’t even begun to exploit the resources in our trash. Once you have your mind set that you can use trash for positive uses, you can begin to brainstorm and generate ideas. Reusing saves money, conserves resources and it satisfies the human urge to make things.
Strategies in Reusing
- Containers can be reused at home or for school projects.
- Reuse wrapping paper, plastic bags, boxes and lumber.
- Give outgrown clothing to friends or a charity.
- Buy beverages in returnable containers.
- Try repair before you consider replacing lawn mowers, tools, vacuum cleaners, and TVs.
- Donate broken appliances to charity or a local vocational school which can use them for art class or for students to practice repairing.
- Offer furniture and household items no longer needed to people in need, friends, or charity.
- Sheets of paper that have been used on only one side can be used for note-taking or rough drafts.
- Old, outdated furniture can be reupholstered or slipcovered. Have padding added to the furniture to give it a new look. Often the frame can be modified slightly to change the way it looks.
- Old pieces of furniture can be repaired or finished with special finishes such as splattering, sponging or rag painting which takes very little time and skill.
- Old towels and sheets can be cut in small pieces and used for dust cloths.
- Plastic bags and wraps can be used for storing items. They can also be used for packing items for mailing.
- Books and magazines can be donated to schools, public libraries or nursing homes.
- Newspapers can be donated to pet stores.
- Packing materials such as polystyrene, plastic quilting and similar packing materials can be saved and reused for the same purpose.
- Carry a reusable tote bag or take bags to the store when you go shopping. There are attractive nylon mesh bags available that can be stored easily in the glove compartment of your car. Durable canvas bags which take very little space to tuck away when not in use can be used.
- If you buy prepared microwaveable dinners, save the plates for use at outside parties or for children.
- Reuse containers. Many containers can be used in school projects. Ask your school what sizes and types they would like you to save.
- Old tires can be used in the garden and in the play yard.
- Save items that are used in schools, day care centers, by
scouts and senior citizens. Examples of the materials
aluminum containers coat hangers beads coffee cans beans gift wrap bottles magazines boxes mirrors brushes oatmeal boxes buttons paper bags burlap foil pie pans calendar plastic bags candles rug samples carpet scraps seeds Christmas cards shopping bags cloth scraps toilet paper rolls wallpaper samples yogurt containers
Recycling Generates Industry
As New Mexicans recycle, there will be a growing supply of materials generated. In order to utilize these recycled materials, manufacturing facilities will emerge to find uses for them. As more recycling plants are built and more products are manufactured, we will gain a greater understanding of the entire process.
Recycling Creates Jobs
Recycling can create jobs. A report at the New York Recycling Forum estimated that recycling 10,000 tons of materials would create 36 jobs compared to six for landfilling the same amount. Some communities have formed working partnerships with workshops for the disabled, developed and administered job training partnerships or otherwise found work for unemployed labor in recycling programs.
Cost Avoidance of Recycling
For years, recycling has been hampered by the belief that it should make money. That may be true for some recyclables, but not for others. Rather, recycling should be throught of as a cost effective disposal option. It usually requires fewer government subsidies than landfilling or incineration. It saves natural resources and helps protect the environment. Lower taxes, energy savings, and a cleaner environment are the real “bottom lines” in favor of recycling.
Finding Markets or “Closing the Loop”
Finding outlets for recycled waste is a critical element of a successful recycling program. For communities, a first step is to identify long established local dealers. As recycling becomes more important, cooperatives may become available in rural areas to help find markets for products. Local recycling industries may be developed.
There are additional strategies that states and localities can use to successfully develop markets. These include:
- Establishing quidelines for buying supplies and equipment and encouraging industry to label the percent of recycled material in a given item.
- Establishing financial incentives such as tax credits or loans.
- Finding buyers for locally produced recycled products.
- Exploring the development of new products made from waste.
- Promoting cooperative marketing programs where a nonprofit organization puts recyclers and buyers of recycled products in touch with one another.
Curbside collection requires homeowners to separate recyclables from their garbage. Clean recyclables are placed in special containers while the garbage goes in standard containers. Both are placed at the curb for collection by separate trucks. In apartment complexes centrally located containers can be made available.
The separated recyclable materials are taken to a processing facility and prepared for shipment to end markets which will use the materials to make new products. Recyclables are cleaner if they are separated from the garbage by the homeowner. Cleaner materials are easier to sell and receive better prices.
Drop-off centers are one of the simplest forms of collecting recyclable materials: citizens drop off their used glass, metal, plastic and newsprint at a designated recycling drop-off site. These centers are usually placed in an easily accessible location near a high traffic area.The centers can be sponsored by the local government as a method of reducing waste that must be landfilled or they may serve as a fund raiser for churches, Boy Scouts, 4-H clubs and other nonprofit groups.
Garbage and recyclables are mixed and separation takes places at a central site. The separation is made in one or two ways:
- Workers at a conveyer belt manually separate cans, bottles, jars and plastics from the household garbage.
- Semi-automated separation which uses conveyer screens and sophisticated magnets to separate the materials.
The question is when there is a large volume of materials collected from recycling programs in New Mexico, will there be a market for materials with a high degree of contamination? The cost to operate a central site may be more expensive to citizens than curbside collection where the citizen separates the recyclables for pick-up.
Buy back centers purchase aluminum, other metals, glass, plastic, newsprint and sometimes batteries and other materials. Citizens voluntarily transport these materials to the site. The centers sort and compact the materials and then sell them to manufacturers for processing. In many cases the centers work closely with local firms such as bars and restaurants to set up procedures for collecting large volumes of recyclable materials.
A Guide to Recycling
Recycling is considered a product of the environmental movement of the 1970s, when the public became aware of the limitations of our natural resources. Beyond being an effective waste management tool, recycling can be an important element in our nation’s economy. Recycling offers a perfect relationship between protecting our environment and enhancing our economy.
What Can I Recycle?
Paper. Many communities have been recycling newspapers for years so there are existing established markets. Paper constitutes about 40% of the volume of residential waste and is one of the most important items for a community to recycle in order to cut down on disposal costs and save landfill space. Although most waste paper goes to paper mills, other industries use it for cereal boxes, insulation materials, cushioning materials for packing and shipping, and building materials such as fiberboard. The main drawbacks are the fluctuation of market prices and the sludge that must be disposed of after the ink is removed. An increasing number of states are requiring their government offices to purchase recycled paper. In a Gallup Poll, eight out of 10 consumers would like the products they buy to be packaged in recycled paper board. Types of paper that can be recycled to save landfill space include:
Newspaper. Stack newspaper in manageable bundles and tie both ways with twine; or stack inside grocery bags. Do not include junk mail, telephone books or magazines. Keep the paper clean and dry.
Corrugated cardboard. Consists of two layers of heavy cardboard with a ribbed section between them. It is commonly used for heavy duty cartons. Boxes can be flattened and bundled.
High-grade paper. High grade paper or ledger include typing, notebook, ditto, mimeo, photocopy and writing paper. White paper must be separated from colored paper and boxed or bagged.
Paper with residues; carbon papers; cellophane; selfstick adhesive; wax, plastic or foil coatings cannot be recycled. Slick paper magazines cannot be recycled in most cases.
Aluminum. More than 90% of all the beer and soft drink cans are made of aluminum. Aluminum cans are molded without side seams and are nonmagnetic. To recycle, rinse and box or bag. Crushing is not necessary, but saves space. Aluminum foil, pie pans, TV dinner trays and lawn furniture are also recyclable. Beverage containers with only aluminum tops or bottoms cannot be mixed with pure aluminum. Twenty aluminum cans can be made using the same energy it takes to produce one can from virgin ore. This represents a 95% savings of energy.
Steel (tin) cans. Steel cans, commonly called tin cans are typically food cans. Food cans make up 37.3% of total can production. These are generally steel or tin-coated steel and can be recycled. They are magnetic and have side seams. To recycle, rinse, remove the label, remove both ends and flatten. The market for tin cans fluctuates. Recycled tin is especially sought after in the U.S. since raw tin can only be obtained from foreign countries.
Glass. Glass containers make up 20-40% of municipal waste glass and are the easiest for recycling centers to collect and handle. All kinds of glass containers-heavy or light, whole or broken-can be recycled and reused an indefinite number of times. Glass is 100% recyclable, there are no waste or bi-products. Clear, green and brown glass are collected in many recycling programs. Broken glass is accepted as long as it is color separated. Paper labels can be left on the glass, but aluminum neck rings and caps can be a problem depending on the recycling equipment being used. Cullet, or crushed glass, can be used to make new bottles, jars and other containers. Some other uses for cullet are glassphalt. (a road paving material), building panels, and terrazzo. While resale value is low, markets are relatively stable.
Recycling centers will not accept light bulbs, ceramic glass, dishes or plate glass because these items consist of different materials than bottles and jars.
Plastic. Two plastics dominate the market: PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is the primary plastic for soda bottles and HDPE (high density polyethylene) is the usual component of milk jugs. Many containers made of plastic are actually made of multiple layers of different plastics, each one contributing a specific quality (such as flexibility or transparency) to the final product. These are extremely difficult to recycle.
A coding system significantly aids efforts to recycle plastics. By weight, plastics constitute about 8% of the waste system; by volume about 30%. The plastic recycling industry is growing with a variety of products being manufactured, including lumber, machine parts, household items such as pans, flower pots, fiberfill and carpet.
Motor oil. Motor oil never wears out, it only gets dirty. Drain car, motor cycle, or lawn mower oil into a container with a sealable lid. Some garages, service stations and some large retailers with auto shops accept used oil. Once impurities are removed, used oil can be marketed as re-refined oil or industrial fuel oil.
Organic waste. Grass clippings, leaves and small branches can be recycled or managed at home. Using these valuable materials can save the homeowners energy and serve as a plus in a yard maintenance program. Old Christmas trees can be recycled, chipped into mulch and used on the grounds. They can also be used in arroyos and along streams and rivers as protective barriers against the damaging effect of wind and water erosion. Contact your County Extension office for more publications on managing yard waste.
Scrap metals. Aluminum lawn furniture, windows, and door frames as well as brass, lead, steel, cast iron, nickel and fixtures and machinery parts can all be recycled. Broken appliances, copper tubing and old car batteries can also be recycled.
Become an Environmental Shopper, Pennsylvania Resources Council, Inc., Media, PA.
How to Coordinate a Glass Recycling Program, Southeast Glass Recycling Program, Clearwater, FL, 1987 Annual Report, Rhode Island Solid-Waste Management Corporation, Providence, RI.
If You’re Not Recycling, You’re Throwing It All Away, The Environmental Defense Fund, 257 Park Avenue South, NY 10010.
Recycling at Home, Florida Business and Industry Recycling Program, Winter Park, FL.
Recycling Study Guide, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, January, 1988.
The Solid Waste Dilemma: An Agenda for Action, Final Report of the Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. EPA, February, 1989.
http://www.epa.gov/wastewise/Preserving Resources, Preventing Waste, 2002.
*Adapted for use in New Mexico by Susan Wright. Adapted from Florida State University Extension publication HE 3157 by Marie Hammer, Extension home environment specialist, and Jonathan Earle, Extension waste management specialist, both of The University of Florida, Gainesville. Used with permission.
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Revised and electronically distributed November 2002, Las Cruces, NM.