Harvesting the Wasteland

by Jim Collins (from US Airways Attaché Magazine, April 2001)

While Almost all of us recycle both at home and at work, few of us are aware of the amazing materials and products that come from our efforts.

That Polartec fleece pullover you're wearing is fashioned from approximately 25 recycled plastic soda bottles. The president's running track at the White House is made from rubber of discarded tires and windshield wipers. And more then 60 percent of Baltomore's streets are now paved with "glassphalt," an aggregate made from asphalt and crushed recycled glass.

The latest news on the golf course and playing field is that recycled rubber chips made from shredded tires are now used to strengthen the soil and improve drainage.

These are just some of the examples of what's known in the trade as "secondary recycling turning recycled materials into new products, ones completely different from what those materials once were. significantly, these new materials are helping to drive a slow but study increase in the percentage of disposable products that Americans are putting back into use. The national recycling rate is up to 27 percent. That's a fair amount below the  targets advocated by environmental groups (and below the U.S. government's goal of 35% by the year 2004). But it's a step in the right direction from where we were 30 years ago, the first time we celebrated Earth day.

The good news is that everywhere you look in our world these days, exciting new technologies are creating more applications and possibilities for recycled materials. Broader community involvement has expended recycling programs in hundreds of towns and cities. In addition, many U.S. corporations have increased voluntarily their "product stewardship." This idea of using more recycled materials in the manufacturing sector and and doing of doing a better job of handling pre-consumer wasted has expended the demand and markets for recycled products. in other words, recycling is now economically feasible, if not advantageous.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that the average American generates nearly 4.5 pounds of trash every day-up two pounds from 40 years ega. Our country is by far the most wasteful on the planet, twice as wasteful as many industrialized countries. And many environmentalist have gnawing sense that recycling will not keep pace-that it is incapable of cleaning up a society so firmly built on convenience and consumption.

So how did this ambulance of waste and the recent need to recycle come about?

SOME TRASHY HISTORY: Recycling, as a concept, is really rather new. Our distant relatives who battled the element to hunt and gather food made use of everything they acquired, resources and raw material that were precious could not be wasted.

This frugal way of existence continued in the Neolithic period, when farming also required careful management of materials. What little waste there was, usually organic matter, was used as fuel, fertilizer, or animal feed.

As villages and cities developed, unusable food scraps and other items were simply thrown out on the street to be eaten by domestic animals (usually pigs). The rest was picked over and scavenged by humans for reuse. This natural practice could be called our earlier form of recycling. From our ancestors, we have learned that the scavenging part of that equation creates near total efficiency though recycling. Anything of any value is eventually sorted, recovered, and put back to use.

That early system of slopping and scavenging continued in Europe and the United State well into the late 1800s, and to this day continues in many parts of the developing word. Recycling materials and objects was simply a necessary way of life. In Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser notes the discovery of a broken stoneware bottle from an early Virginia plantation: The top appears to have been pressed into service as funnel while the bottom was turned into a bowl.

In pioneer America, costly glass bottles for milk and beer were filled and refilled. Even newspapers were collected for reuse as insulation or as packing materials. Worn-out shoes and clothing that were not passed on were used for patches. Scraps of cloth were converted into quilt or rag rugs. And anything broken was repaired. (It was a rule, far chipper to fix something than buy a new one. Rather than being replaced, damaged fine clothes were even sent back to Europe for repair.) In those times, there was excess and nothing at all resembling "disposable."

American society changed rapidly with the mass production that marked the first quarter of the twentieth century. For the first time, fashion and marketing created a sense among consumers that products became outdated or went out of style, needed to be replaced on regular basis. Marketing geniuses realized that packaging could become an elaborate selling tool, its purpose to be attractive and then thrown away. And it became cheaper to replace broken items than to repair them. Following World War II, the waste stream grew along with the need for sanitary, "healthier," one-use paper products such as paper towels, paper cups, paper plates, napkins, tissues.

It wasn't until the social revolution of the 1960s that the modern idea or recycling took hold. It was during the first Earth Day celebration in April 10970 that the container Corporation of America sponsored a contest for the design o f a "paper recycling" symbol. From more than than 1,000 entries submitted, Gary Anderson's now familiar three chasing arrows was selected. That symbol has graphically represented a movement that has grown, in the past three decade, from paper and bottle "drives" to sophisticated recycling center that accept and process glass, tin aluminum, scrap metal, tires, batteries, electronic equipment, Styrofoam, paint, plastics of most kinds, and yard wastes.

RECYCLING LESSONS Volumes have been written about the science and chemistry of recycling. But even a quick glance offers a good idea of what's involved.

Most of the 4.5 pounds of trash that each of us generates each day is made up of paper, glass, aluminum, steel and plastic-all recyclable materials. Of those, we Americans throw away more paper than anything else. Fortunately, more than 50 grades of "recovered" paper exist, including newsprint, office paper, computer green-bar, telephone books, magazines and catalogs, cereal boxboard, and corrugated boxes. Corrugated boxes are the most commonly recycled municipal waste product, just ahead of newspapers.

Typically, paper is sorted by hand according to grade at the recycling center. it's then baled and sent to a paper mill for reprocessing. At the mill the paper is mixed with water in a large vat called a hydropulper, which agitates the soaking paper the way a blender would. The paper's tightly woven cellulose fibers break down, turning into a mixture of slurried pulp. In some cases, detergent or other chemicals help disperse and separate the inks which get flushed away by the water, to be recovered. In some case of glossy papers, "floatation de-inking" is becoming the standard: Air bubbles shoot up from the bottom of the hydropulser, loosening the clay fillers that give the paper its gloss and that turn, act as blotters to absorb loosened petroleum- based flecks of ink. the floating clay/ink bubbles are then skimmed from the surface, leaving the slurry-de-inked and de de glossed in one operation.

Once de-inked, the slurry is screened for staples, paper clips, dirt and other contaminants. The clean pulp gets sprayed onto large flat screens, dried and pressed, and rolled onto a series of heated cylinders, just as virgin wood pulp would be. In higher-grade recycled paper, virgin fibers are added to the recycled fibers, which get shortened and weakened by the agitation process. Because of this weakening, there, there's s limit how many times to how many time paper can be recycled. Newsprint for instance, can be recycled back into newsprint up to eight times before the fibers become too weak. Grade that can be made of 100% recycled fibers include newsprint, egg cartons, cereal boxes, and paper towels.

 

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