It is estimated that the average American, in a lifetime, generates 600 times his or her weight in garbage. The 150 pound person would generate 90,000 pounds or 45 tons of garbage during their lifetime. With increasing numbers of people and increasing consumption, this amount will likely increase.

We are running out of places to put our garbage. One place where we put garbage is a landfill. A landfill is a garbage dump site where garbage is buried under layers of soil. In 1981 Louisiana had 788 landfills. In 1991 we had only 40 landfills remaining. Today (2000) we have only 11 remaining landfills. Why are we running out of landfills?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal governmental agency which protects our land, water and air. The EPA monitors the soil and water near landfills. If the EPA finds a landfill to be unsafe, it can order the landfill to be cleaned up or closed. The cost of cleaning up a landfill can be as high as $50 million. The EPA must also approve the construction of all new landfills to be sure that they are environmentally safe. The reason why we are running out of landfills is that so many have been found by the EPA to be unsafe. Toxic chemicals in soil and water have caused the EPA to close many landfills. It is difficult to create new landfills because of what is described as NIMBY--not in my back yard. Almost no one wants to live near a landfill.

Old landfills were made by using a bulldozer to dig a hole, filling it with garbage, then pushing dirt on top of the garbage. However, today the EPA has strict requirements for new landfills. Landfills must have a primary liner made of plastic, a primary clay liner, a secondary plastic liner, a secondary clay liner, pressure monitors for the plastic liners, leak detections systems between each liner, and at least two wells to monitor underground water. Therefore, it is much more expensive to create a new landfill today than it was in the past.

The law of conservation of mass states that matter cannot be created or destroyed--it can only change in form. This means that when we place garbage in a landfill, it will not magically disappear. This garbage will, however, degrade or decompose. To degrade or decompose means that garbage will breakdown into smaller parts. Some garbage is biodegradable. Biodegradable means that it will breakdown by bacterial means when it is exposed to moisture and air. Some garbage is photodegradable. Photodegradable means that it will decompose when exposed to the ultraviolet radiation of the sun. If an item decomposed into components which are helpful or harmless to the environment, decomposition is a good thing. However, many items decompose into components which are harmful to the environment. These components work their way into the air that we breath and into our water supply and can do harm to people and other living things.

A partial answer to the garbage problem is recycling. At least 60% of today's garbage is recyclable. If we recycled to this potential, the amount of disposed garbage would be reduced by 60%.

Some of the things which can be recycled are: aluminum, iron, copper, glass, paper, oil, plastics, and car batteries. Extra credit assignment: for ten extra credit points, call a local recycler and find out how much they are presently paying for a pound of aluminum cans. This is due tomorrow.

In addition to saving landfill space, recycling also saves energy. It requires 70% less energy to make steel from recycled scrap iron than from iron ore. It takes 95% less energy to make aluminum cans from recycled cans than to make them from bauxite. It takes 40% less energy to make paper from recycled paper than from pulp wood. It takes 75% less energy to make glass bottles from recycled glass rather than from sand.

In addition to saving landfill space and energy, there are other good reasons to recycle:

1. It is usually less expensive to recycle rather than to dump in a landfill.

2. Recycling creates less pollution than does production from raw materials.

3. Recycling conserves natural resources. For example, if recycled paper was used just to make Sunday newspapers in America, it would save 500,000 trees each Sunday.

While the question of degradability is important for all solid waste, it is most controversial for plastics. Plastics are hydrocarbon products made from crude oil. In the process called reforming, hydrocarbons are converted into plastics. Plastics vary in the time required for them to degrade--from about a week to thousands of years. Plastic sutures, the cord-like plastics used as stitches after surgery, can be made to degrade in about a week. However, plastic milk cartons, styrofoam, plastic six-pack holders, plastic garbage bags, and some plastic diapers require thousands of years to degrade. In recent years some of these products have been redesigned to degrade more quickly. Today many plastic garbage bags and diapers are being made so that they are photodegradable. Most beverage maker have stopped using plastic six-pack holders.

The plastics used in association with food, drink or medicine cannot be recycled for this same use at the present time because recycling methods cannot guarantee the same purity as new plastics. However, these plastics can be recycled and used for other things. They can be recycled and used to make clothing, water, sewer and irrigation pipes, housewares, automobiles, garbage cans, plastic lumber, traffic signs, traffic cones, trays, note pads, rulers, pens, helmets, tool boxes, etc.

For the recycling of any product, there are four phases which must be successfully coordinated: 1. collection 2. sorting 3. reclamation 4. end use To sort plastics for recycling, the Society of the Plastic Industry, Inc. has developed codes which are now placed on all recyclable plastics. These codes consist of a number surrounded by three curved arrows.

The number one indicates a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. This is a non-floating type of plastic used to make soft drink bottles. PET can be recycled into fiber fill for pillows, insulation for ski jackets and sleeping bags, into clothes, building insulation, and carpeting. The number two is for high density polyethylene (HDPE), a plastic which does float and is used to make milk jugs and detergent bottles. HDPE can be recycled into lumber, traffic cones and barriers, kitchen drain boards, toys, pipe, and trash cans. The number three is for vinyls, which are used to make shampoo bottles and salad dressing bottles. The number four is for low density polyethylene (LDPE), the type of plastic used to make shopping bags. The number five is for polypropylene, a plastic used to make catsup bottles and yogurt cups. The number six is for polystyrene (styrofoam), a plastic used to make coffee cups and plastic knives, forks and spoons. Polystyrene can be recycled into video cassettes, office equipment, toys, combs, insulation for homes and buildings, serving trays, and ice scrapers. The number seven is for various other forms of plastic, which can be recycled into such products as lumber, tool boxes, flower pots, and playground equipment. These number codes enable sorters to rapidly sort different types of plastics into recyclable groups.

Presently, about 70% of our garbage is deposited in landfills. Another method of handling garbage is incineration. Incineration means burning garbage. If incineration is not done correctly it pollutes the air. It can cause the release of dioxin, an often toxic family of chlorinated chemicals created by the incomplete combustion of carbon compounds. However, if incinerators are build correctly and are properly filtered, this can be a good and safe way of disposing of waste, and the heat energy produced by incineration can be used to generate electricity.

Recycling Study Sheet