Background on Recycling

boy staring at a globe

Most people think recycling is a modern concept introduced in the 70's. In reality, recycling has been around for centuries.

In Roman times bronze items were melted down for perpetual reuse, and in Britain residue from wood and coal fires were used as base material in brick making. Examples of conservation efforts over the years are endless, but it wasn't until the first Earth Day in 1970 that people really started paying attention.

The mass production of the modern era is, in many ways, the very reason we need to worry about large-scale recycling. When products can be produced (and bought) very cheaply, it often makes more economic sense to simply throw away old items and purchase brand new ones. It's this culture of "disposable" goods that has created a number of environmental problems.

The massive Fresh Kill landfill, opened on Staten Island in 1948 and closed in 2001, was one of three man-made things that could be viewed clearly from outer space. To understand the enormity of this, consider that the other two are the Great Wall of China and the American Interstate system!

Landfill usage peaked in the 1980s, when Americans sent almost 150 million tons of garbage to landfills each year. Today, we still dump more than 100 million tons of trash into landfills annually. However, recycling efforts in the United States divert 32% of waste away from landfills. That prevents more than 60 million tons of garbage from ending up in landfills every year! But before you start hooting and hollering, remember that 68% of our trash and garbage is still being dumped! Part of the problem is the discarding of electronics.

The Computer Takeback Campaign estimates that Americans scrap about 400 million units per year of consumer electronics. Discarded computers, televisions, cell phones, and other consumer electronics are the fastest growing portion of our waste stream -- growing by almost 8% from 2004 to 2005. The EPA estimates that in 2005, the US generated 2.63 million tons of e-waste. But only 12.5% of that was collected for recycling. The other 87.5% went to landfills and incinerators, despite the fact that hazardous chemicals in them can leach out of landfills into groundwater and streams, or that burning the plastics in electronics can emit dioxin. This is likely to get worst in a few months when millions of TVs will become obsolete, due to a new rule requiring all TV signals to switch to digital on February 17, 2009.

All of this has been to drive home the importance of recycling. Please recycle! Get your family to recycle and your school and your community!

To do something about recycling, click here.

How Stuff Works
Recycling Centers
Pollution Prevention Pays

Computer Take Back Campaign