by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 14, 1997

"America Recycles Day" will be celebrated tomorrow. Sponsored by the EPA and a coalition of businesses and trade associations involved in recycling, its purpose is to increase the rate of recycling in this country. New Haven's Recycling Educator, Heather Gilbert, called my attention to the celebration and to the events being held this weekend. For example, Steve Marsh, Hamden's recycling coordinator, is providing a composting demonstration and giving away compost bins at his town's recycling center.

The average American discards more than four pounds of garbage every single day. That's about three quarters of a ton of solid waste from each person every year. Recycling that waste saves energy, resources and disposal costs. In Connecticut, recycling keeps leaves, food wastes, glass, metals, plastics and other wastes out of incinerators, and consequently, out of our already-polluted air. Even if the recycled materials don't bring in money, recycling them is usually much cheaper than burning them.

We've made some real progress. In just the last ten years, the national recycling rate has more than doubled, from 11% to 27%. In our town, the Saturday morning trip to the now-closed dump has been replaced by a visit to the recycling center with junk mail, glass and metal containers. Plastic bins along the road are features of the landscape in many towns and a greater variety of materials can be recycled in them.

The rapid growth in recycling over the past decade is one of the more hopeful signs for the survival of our species. In part, because of its environmental benefits, and in part, because it shows the effectiveness of citizen activism and leadership. For example, for more than a decade, grassroots groups such as Freddy Fixer and Rainbow Recycling in New Haven and the Recycling Coalition in Hamden have led the way and inspired education, recycling and composting programs which now save taxpayers real money as they help the environment.

Remember when cities and citizens used to burn their leaves. Now they make high quality compost instead. An important side effect of leaf composting programs is more bountiful gardens as that compost is returned to the soil. New Haven has been especially good at getting its compost to school and community gardens. We've been using Hamden's leaf compost, made on top of its closed landfill, to create gardens at the Lorraine D. Foster School. As the students fill up the truck, there are always other enthusiastic gardeners loading compost, too.

The promoters of "America Recycles Day" also want to encourage people to buy products made from recycled materials. Indeed, that's the only way the system will work. There has to be a cycle. Public pressure has encouraged many businesses, organizations and government units to specify recycled content in their purchases. At home, we do our best to use only paper and paper products made from recycled fibers since we recycle quite a bit of paper.

However, if we don't like the product made from recycled materials, then it makes sense not to use the original material. Since we don't want to wear shirts made from recycled soda bottles, we don't buy soda bottles in the first place. In fact, we try to avoid plastic as much as possible, since even if it is recycled, plastic always becomes, well, more plastic. It's usually a lower grade, too, since we don't want our milk delivered in plastic made of used pesticide or motor oil containers. The more plastic we use and recycle, the more low-grade plastic we'll have in our environment.

It's important not to see recycling as just another growth industry, giving us the freedom to consume as much packaging as businesses want to sell - just as long as it's recyclable and we recycle it. Aluminum cans, for example, cause so much environmental and social damage, and have such a great energy cost to make and recycle, that they should always be avoided.

And, remember that recycling is the third choice for handling our waste problems. Reducing the amount of material we use, and reusing things in their original form are both much gentler on the environment than recycling is.

This celebration reminds us ultimately that we should be more conscious of our buying and our discarding habits.

Happy "America Recycles Day."

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.