Special Reports

December 23, 2011

By recycling more and trashing less, we’re still keeping America beautiful after all these years

Of all the projects of all our first ladies, the one by Lady Bird Johnson may be proving the most successful.

Of all the projects of all our first ladies, the one by Lady Bird Johnson may be proving the most successful.

Just say no.” That didn’t work very well.

But “Keep America Beautiful” is still gaining ground after a half-century.

That catch phrase of the 1960s started out with decreasing waste and litter.

Anyone remember the public service announcement of the tearful Indian. If not, you can still watch it on YouTube. It had an impact on people.

Today, we’re creating less pollution, per person, than ever before.

While we’re making more trash, we’re recycling more of what we throw away to use again, sending more back to the earth and less to the landfill, according to a recent report (.pdf) from the Environmental Protection Agency.

In short, the efforts of a bunch of individuals are paying off.

Last year, Americans recycled some 65 million tons of what they threw away. They composted another 20 tons. That amounts to more than a third of our municipal solid waste — about 10 times more than in 1980.

Of course, more people are throwing more stuff away, so we’re still creating a lot more trash than we did in 1960, when recycling didn’t really exist. The past two years, we’ve collectively generated about 250 million tons of trash each year.

The economy, it seems, also contributes to our recycling efforts, experts say.

“In late 2008, the economic crises severely affected the recycling markets,” said Kris Hicks, an environmental scientist and educator for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. “That’s why you see a significant dip in 2009. We experienced maybe a 10% drop in tipping fees. Construction was down, purchasing was down, people just weren’t spending money on new things, so the packaging materials weren’t being generated.”

A better gauge, Hicks said, is to look at the average waste each person makes each day.

In 2010, each American created 4½ pounds of waste each day. That’s compare to little more than 2½ pounds per person per day in 1960. But through recycling and composting, we’re actually sending less to the landfill than we did a half-century ago: 2.4 pounds per person in 2010, compared to 2.51 pounds in 1960. That’s great, considering we have almost twice as many people now as we did then.

What does this do?

For one, it saves energy.

The EPA report said that recycling one ton of aluminum cans saves the equivalent of 36 barrels of oil or 1,665 gallons of gas. Last year, we recycled more than half a million tons of aluminum cans.

The 85 million tons of stuff we recycled and composted saved 229 million barrels of oil.

For the most part, we’re doing a great job of recycling our packaging (48.3 percent) and composting our yard trimmings (57.5 percent).

We’re doing a fantastic job of recycling lead-acid car batteries (96 percent), corrugated boxes (85 percent) and newspapers (72 percent).

We’re not doing very well on plastics and mixed paper.

Plastics is especially concerning, because of the vast plastic islands being created at sea, which is killing off wildlife. Still, only 12 percent of the plastic containers we use end up in the recycling bin.

Those pictures of the birds that die from eating plastic they mistake for plankton, are still enough to make people with a deep abiding love for the natural beauty of the earth still shed a tear.

So as we go in 2012, let’s make a resolution to recycle more plastic and “Keep America Beautiful.”

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