Each person in the United States generates approximately 4.4 pound of municipal solid waste per day and Floridians generate nearly twice this amount averaging 7.6 pounds per day per person. All this waste must go somewhere and unfortunately our environment often suffers from this ever-increasing waste stream we generate. By choosing to prevent waste and recycle, you can help curb environment degradation. Waste prevention and recycling have a much greater impact than just simply making less garbage. The following environmental benefits are linked with reducing solid waste through waste prevention and recycling:
Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that simply by increasing our national recycling rate up to 35 percent from the current 25% recycling rate and cutting the amount of waste we generate to 1990 levels, we could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 24.5 million metric tons of carbon. This amount of carbon emissions is equal to the average emissions from the electricity consumption of about 15 million households for an entire year. The dramatic increase of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere over the last century is primarily due to burning fossil fuels for energy. Waste prevention and recycling saves energy, resulting in fewer fossil fuels burned and significantly less carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Another greenhouse gas, methane, is generated from the heaps of solid waste sent to landfills. By diverting solid waste through waste prevention and recycling (including composting) the level of methane emissions can be reduced.
Reduced Need for New Landfills
Landfills take up valuable land space, are expensive to operate, and are often not very popular with local communities. By emphasizing waste prevention and recycle practices communities can benefit by extending the operating life of their current landfill. For every cubic yard of material recycled, there is one less cubic yard of landfill space required. In 1996, the EPA estimated that recycling and composting in the United States diverted over 130 million cubic yards of solid waste from landfills. This diverted amount is equivalent to the construction of 64 large landfills that would have been needed if it were not for recycling programs across the nation.
Reduced Groundwater Pollution
New landfills are lined to protect against groundwater pollution, but no system is completely foolproof. When containers with hazardous materials are improperly disposed of they often break or leak, releasing toxic elements into the soil where they can eventually end up in surface or ground waters. Even small amounts of some substances can cause fires, release toxic fumes, or harm individuals who handle them unknowingly. It only takes one gallon of used oil to pollute one million gallons of drinking water. By recycling and properly disposing of household hazardous materials such as motor oil, oil filters, fluorescent tubes, auto batteries, and old paint, the potential for groundwater contamination is substantially lowered. Recycling household hazardous waste such as used motor oil also reduces waste. One gallon of used oil can be recycled to produce 2.5 quarts of lubricating oil, but it takes nearly 42 gallons of crude oil to make that same amount.
In 1996, the energy saving resulting from recycling was equal to the amount of energy used in 4 million households annually. The excavation, processing and manufacturing of raw materials is an extremely energy-intensive activity. Recycling and waste prevention achieve significant energy savings compared to virgin material production. For instance, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than producing aluminum from raw material. Recycling old paper instead of using new timber to produce paper uses 60% less energy. The energy saved from recycling steel each year alone is enough to power the City of Los Angeles for eight years.
Reduced Air Pollution
The extraction and processing of raw materials often results in the release of many different and even toxic pollutants. Recycling and waste prevention are highly effective strategies for reducing air pollution. Air pollution resulting from the extraction and processing of raw materials are substantially decreased when recovered materials are used to make new products rather than virgin materials. Waste prevention is even more effective in reducing air pollution, because it reduces the need to extract, process, or transport new material in the first place.
Conserves Resources for Future Generation
The earth's natural resources are extraordinary, but they are limited. The supply of nonrenewable resources, such as oil and iron ore, will someday be exhausted and renewable resources, such as paper and wood, only have a limited annual supply. One of the largest impacts recycling and waste prevention can have is reducing the loss of our forests. For every ton of paper recycled, 17 trees are saved from having to be cut down to make new paper. In fact, if all the newspapers printed in the U.S. alone were recycled, more than 250 million trees would be saved each year. Additionally, reduced forest loss increases the storage of carbon dioxide in trees and helps to reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.