Some get their Halloween fright-fix from ghosts and goblins, but for greenies, it’s hard to get scarier than a look at the American waste stream. We’ve come a long way with recycling. But, as these chilling facts prove, there’s still a lot of work to be done. So, turn on those nightlights, grab a friend’s hand and check out these five truly scary recycling facts.
Drowning in disposables
We all know Americans use a lot of disposables, but the volume of single-use products entering the waste stream may send a shiver up your spine. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons to circle the equator 300 times, according to the Clean Air Council. The average U.S. office worker uses 500 disposable cups every year, the group estimates.
What you can do: The best way to ditch disposables is to think ahead. Stock up on reusable coffee mugs, water bottles and cutlery before you leave the house, or pack a “disposable-free survival kit” for your car or desk. Include all the reusable items you need to banish single-use products, and pack them in a reusable shopping bag for impromptu trips to the grocery store. If you do opt for disposables, find a recycling solution for them using Earth911′s Recycling Directory.
The bag habit
Although more and more U.S. cities are banning plastic shopping bags, the amount of bags popping up in our landfills will still give you the fright of your life. About 89 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are used each year in the U.S. According to the American Chemistry Council, only about 13 percent of polyethylene bags and film were recycled in 2009.
What you can do: Using a reusable shopping bag is the best way to shrink this staggering number. If you forget your tote, opt for paper bags instead. Unlike plastic, paper bags are biodegradable and safe for your compost pile. And if you have a few plastic bags around the house, don’t toss them in the trash! Most grocery chains accept plastic bags for recycling, even if the bags aren’t from their store.
Kicked to the curb
Curbside recycling serves about half the American population, but availability varies greatly by region. Only about 30 percent of people in the Southern region of the U.S. have access to curbside recycling, compared to 84 percent of people in the Northeast, the EPA said. The South also has the most landfills of any region in the U.S. More than 700 landfills are established in Southern states, while the Northeast has only 134.
What you can do: Public demand is the No. 1 reason an area adopts curbside recycling. If your town doesn’t offer curbside, contact your local waste management provider or political representative and ask why not. Or, to attract more concerned citizens to the cause, bring up the idea of curbside recycling at your next town or school meeting and suggest letter-writing campaigns to give local government the message.
Waste in our water
More and more steps are being taken to protect our oceans from dumping and pollution, but the waste that still ends up there may surprise you. Combined sewer systems (wastewater collection systems that transport sewage and storm water to a treatment plant in the same pipe) serve 40 million people in America.
In times of heavy rainfall, the system becomes overwhelmed with storm runoff and automatically discharges excess water into local rivers (called combined sewage overflows or CSOs). The EPA estimates that 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water end up in our oceans each year due to CSOs.
What you can do: Combined sewer systems are most commonly used in older cities and urban areas. If your city uses such a system, the best way to combat CSOs is to avoid littering. Trash that’s tossed on city streets can get washed into storm drains during heavy rain, which clogs up the treatment system and increases the chance of malfunctions.
Less litter keeps systems cleaner, but too much rain can still result in CSOs in your area. Many cities are trying to reduce CSOs by separating wastewater and storm water systems. Contact your representative to find out what your city government is doing to help.
New e-waste standards have brought about huge increases in recycling. But, despite recent efforts, the mountains of electronics finding their way into American landfills are enough to give you goosebumps. The EPA estimates that 438 million new consumer electronics were sold in 2009, 2.37 million tons of electronics reached end-of-life and only about 25 percent were recycled.
Computers were collected for recycling at the highest rate, with 38 percent recycled, according to the EPA. Only 17 percent of televisions and 8 percent of cell phones found their way to the recycling facility in 2009. Most of this non-recycled e-waste wound up in landfills, while other items gathered dust in basements and storage facilities.
What you can do: When one of your gadgets reaches end-of-life, start thinking about recycling it right away. The longer you let it sit forgotten in a junk room, the more likely you are to get sick of looking at it and toss it in the trash. If your gadget is still in working condition, companies like Gazelle will actually pay you to recycle it. For gadgets that aren’t working, check out Earth911 to find a recycling solution near you.