According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2003 the United States produced more than 236 million tons of solid municipal waste, approximately 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day, or 1642.5 pounds per person per year. About 35% of this waste material consisted of paper. Recycling, which includes composting, took 72 million tons of waste material out of landfills and combustion facilities in 2003. This is a huge increase from 1980, when only about 15 million tons was diverted. In 1989, the EPA set a goal for 25% of solid municipal waste to be reused or recycled and that goal was met in 1996, thanks to numerous programs that encouraged recycling in the 1990s and Executive Orders from Presidents Bush, Sr. and Clinton which were designed to stimulate waste reduction and recycling in all federal agencies. Now the EPA has set a goal of 35% and we are getting closer as recent statistics show that Americans are now recycling approximately 30% of their garbage (Compare that to Maryland’s 35.8% recycling rate!).
We all know that recycling saves the environment and conserves natural resources. But did you know that it takes 95% less energy to recycle aluminum than to extract and refine it from raw materials? Our current recycling rate of 30% is equivalent, in the net result of lower greenhouse gas emissions, of removing 25 million cars from the road. The energy saved from recycling in 2005 alone is equivalent to the amount of energy used in 9 million homes (over 900 trillion BTUs). A study on the Stanford University campus showed that just one year of campus-wide recycling saved 33,913 trees and 636 tons of iron ore, coal and limestone. The recycling industry itself creates 1.1 million jobs in the United States and $236 billion in gross annual sales. Think about your 1642.5 pounds of garbage, how much of that could be recycled or reused, and you can see that even one person can have a huge impact on the environment. Right now more than half of the recyclable materials that Americans use such as paper, boxes, cans and plastic soda bottles are not being recycled.
In Anne Arundel County, curbside recycling accepts all paper and cardboard, recyclable cans, bottles and jars, and yard waste. Special yellow bins are available from the County for containing the recyclables, but you may use any container of your choice. (If you live within the city limits of Annapolis, you must use the blue “Annapolis Recycles” bins for all paper, cans and plastics. They are available free from the City Department of Public Works. Call 410-263-7949. Containers other than yellow bins should be marked with a large “X” to let the collection crews know that the contents are intended for recycling and not disposal. Cans, bottles and jars can be mixed together, but should never be mixed with paper or yard waste. While any individual bag or container of waste material placed at curbside cannot weigh more than 40 pounds, there is currently no limit to the number of containers that can be put out.
Certain household waste products are considered hazardous and should never be placed in your trash or mixed in with recyclables. These items are accepted at the Millersville Landfill and other Convenience Centers on certain days throughout the year (see chart) and include: oil-based paints, staining agents, paint solvents, pesticides, household and automotive cleaners, oil or antifreeze that has been contaminated with water or other substances, pool chemicals, gasoline, kerosene, batteries, thermometers, thermostats, florescent bulbs and mercury vapor lamps. On any day of the year, the convenience centers will also accept uncontaminated motor oil and antifreeze, automobile batteries and drained automobile oil filters. These materials are either recycled or disposed of in special landfills and incinerators, which are designed to prevent the hazardous liquids these materials produce (called leachate) from entering the environment.
Other hazardous materials must be recycled or disposed of in specific ways. Firearms and ammunition can be turned in to the Fire Marshall’s office at 2660 Riva Road. Call the Fire Marshall’s office at 410-222-7884 to arrange for the pick-up of explosive items such as gunpowder, hand grenades, blasting caps and fireworks Did you know that many smoke detectors contain a small amount of americium-241, a radioactive isotope of plutonium? Because americium-241 has such a long half-life, the amount your smoke detector contains when its certified life ends will be about the same as when you bought it. Currently, the County has no special program for the disposal or recycling of smoke detectors, but many manufacturers do, so check the back of your unit for the manufacturer’s name and contact them before you throw it in the trash. Scrap metal, such as that produced in construction, can find a home at Mid Atlantic Recycle Center at 1994 Moreland Parkway in Annapolis. Call them at 410-268-CASH if that addition onto your house has produced some scrap you don’t know what to do with.
One category of municipal waste is growing each year: electronics. The speed with which technology advances makes electronic products obsolete sooner, and the affordability of many of these products makes repair and reuse less viable than replacement. Between 1997 and 2007, nearly 500 million home computers will become obsolete (that’s about 2 computers for each person in the U.S.). Our current televisions are on their way out as high definition sets become more widely available, and many homes today have two or three TVs. Many pieces of obsolete or used electronics linger in attics and basements, because their owners believe they may have some resale value, but any potential value in these items drastically reduces the longer they remain in storage.
Electronics items contain a number of metals and other materials that are hazardous to human health and the environment. Cadmium, lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, and brominated flame retardants can be found in most common electronics and are severely hazardous if allowed to accumulate in the environment. If these materials leach out of landfills, they can concentrate in the water supply and the food chain.
The recycling of electronics, while growing in availability, still has a way to go to become a sustainable industry. The cost of transporting equipment to a recycling facility can be high if there is not one nearby, and the complexity of most modern electronics makes the extraction of recyclable elements difficult. Plastic comprises the majority of the material composition of a typical desktop computer, but because of the wide variety of plastics used and the lack of means to identify them (computer plastics are not marked or labeled in any way), it is one of the most challenging parts of a computer to recycle. Despite this difficulty, the total resale value of renewable parts of a PC can add up to $34 or more. This is not small change when you consider the 500 million PCs which will become obsolete by 2007, and the benefit to the environment is almost incalculable.
Currently, the National Recycling Coalition recommends reuse as the first choice option for disposal of older electronics. Many charitable organizations accept donations of electronics and this provides low-income individuals with access to computers and other items at reduced or no cost. However many of these organizations do not have the ability to repair broken equipment and the burden and cost of disposal is then shifted to them. Be sure that any computer or electronic equipment that you donate is still in good working condition. If you’d still like to find a way to donate that old PC whose hard drive crashed, contact the Chesapeake PC Users Group at 410-923-1550. Their Computer Recycling Special Interest Group has a workshop in Crownsville that repairs and refurbishes Pentium PCs which are then matched with and donated to local organizations. They are a non-profit and pay no salaries to any of the great people who do their work, so cash donations are always welcome too.
Anne Arundel County sponsors an annual e-cycling event where residents can bring computers, but as of this writing, it has not been scheduled for 2006. Alternatively, the County website has a list of several companies in Maryland which accept used computers for recycling or refurbishing.
Whether you are a dedicated composter, a curbside recycler, an electronics donator, or all three, you are doing your part as a citizen of the United States to make sure that we have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and a vast land full of precious natural resources that will last well beyond our lifetimes. The extra effort it may take to bundle all those papers or bag all those cans will be returned to you a thousand-fold in the form of a better, cleaner world for ourselves and our children. The websites below can give you more information about recycling:
The Environmental Protection Agency has a great deal of information about the broad environmental impact of garbage and recycling.
The Anne Arundel County site with all the info you need on recycling in the County.
Recycling and waste management info from the City of Annapolis.
A place to look up recycling information for Maryland and beyond.
Easy to read and understand information about recycling.
Delve deeper with the National Recycling Coalition.
Environmental Defense has a great document, written as an answer to a New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Recycling is Garbage.”