EarthTalk: Has recycling lived up to its promise
to reduce waste and pollution, save energy and provide jobs
in our ailing economy?
—Ian Atkinson, New York, NY
today is considered by many to be a huge success,
though Americans could be recycling more than they
do. Well managed recycling systems that focus on
profitable resources like glass, paper and metals
have had the most success.
© Digital Vision
still don’t recycle as much as they could. Nonetheless,
the practice is already considered a huge success given
that it keeps about a third of the solid waste we generate
out of our quickly filling landfills and saves natural resources
while generating much-needed revenue for struggling municipal
governments. Recycling also helps us keep our carbon footprints
down: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
recycling one ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 1,665
gallons of gasoline.
course that doesn’t mean the progression from virtually
no recycling just 40 years ago to today’s U.S. average
of 33.8 percent has always been smooth. Some types of materials,
especially mixed plastics, have proven difficult and/or
expensive to recycle, causing skeptics to question the overall
value proposition. But well managed recycling systems that
focus on profitable resources like glass, paper and metals
have been a big success. And why wouldn’t they be,
when recycling uses as little as five percent of the energy
required for virgin production of materials such as aluminum?
Brown of Presidio Graduate School reports that, while recycling
has gained significant momentum during the last two decades,
it has still not yet realized its potential. “Unfortunately,
recycling pick-up services are not cheap and it is viewed
as a redundant service; extra trucks mean extra cost. On
top of that, single stream recycling requires investment
in technology to sort the loads efficiently,” she
says. “Trash, on the other hand, is far more indiscriminate
because everything just goes to one place, the landfill.”
says that the availability of curbside recycling programs
varies throughout the country, as does their success. For
example, New York City was a pioneer in recycling, but when
the city became strapped for cash, recycling rates fell
precipitously to just 15 percent and have not recovered.
“New York City officials claim it is more expensive
to recycle than to send trash to landfills and incinerators
for disposal, and that they have to weigh those costs against
the other end of the spectrum is San Francisco, which has
been steadily increasing its recycling and composting and
is now up to over 77 percent. Even more incredibly, the
city is aiming for zero waste by 2020. Brown lauds San Francisco
for structuring its recycling program to promote the desired
behavior. “Curbside fees are charged on a ‘pay
as you throw’ basis for trash, while recycling and
compost are free, creating a financial incentive for following
the law and sorting your waste.” Brown adds that programs
like San Francisco’s prove that recycling can be economically
viable besides being good for the planet.
acknowledges we’ve come a long way with recycling
but that there is still great potential to do more. A November
2011 report entitled “More Jobs, Less Pollution”
by a coalition of groups including the BlueGreen Alliance,
the Natural Resources Defense Council and Recycling Works!
advocates that the U.S. government mandate diverting 75
percent of our waste coast-to-coast by 2030. The result
would be 1.5 million new jobs as well as significant pollution
reduction and savings in water and other resources.
Jobs, Less Pollution Report; Presidio
NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!
EarthTalk: What is “perchlorate”
in our drinking water supply and why is it controversial?
—David Sparrow, Chico, CA
million Americans live in areas where concentrations
of perchlorate -- a chemical used in the production
of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares and
explosives -- are significantly higher in public
drinking water supplies than what is considered
both a naturally occurring and man-made chemical used in
the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares
and explosives. It is also sometimes present in bleach and
in some fertilizers. Its widespread release into the environment
is primarily associated with defense contracting, military
operations and aerospace programs.
be widespread in ground water, soils and plants, and makes
its way up the food chain accordingly—even into organically
grown foods. To wit, A 2005 Journal of Environmental Science
and Technology study using ion chromatography to find contaminants
in agricultural products found quantifiable levels of perchlorate
in 16 percent of conventionally produced lettuces and other
leafy greens and in 32 percent of otherwise similar but
organically produced samples. Today, traces of perchlorate
are found in the bloodstreams of just about every human
on the planet.
the environment is a health concern because it can disrupt
the thyroid’s ability to produce hormones needed for
normal growth and development. Besides its potential to
cause endocrine system and reproductive problems, perchlorate
is considered a “likely human carcinogen” by
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some 11
million Americans live in areas where concentrations of
perchlorate in public drinking water supplies are significantly
higher than what is considered safe.
Per the mandate
of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is currently working
on setting national standards for how much perchlorate can
be allowed in drinking water without putting people at risk.
As part of the process, the agency is studying the available
science on the health effects of perchlorate exposure and
evaluating laboratory methods for measuring, treating and
removing perchlorate in drinking water. The EPA will publish
a proposed rule on the matter for public review at some
point in 2013.
happy that the EPA is moving ahead with a drinking water
standard…but we are concerned that it won’t
be strict enough,” reports Renee Sharp of the nonprofit
Environmental Working Group (EWG). The group would like
to see the U.S. adopt “a truly health-protective drinking
water standard lower than 1 ppb [parts per billion]”
for perchlorate. Insiders don’t believe federal policymakers
will go that low, however, since the EPA says it cannot
detect perchlorate below 2 ppb. But EWG point out that Massachusetts
is already testing for it with a 1 ppb cut-off, per the
mandate of its statewide standard set back in 2006.
The only other
state to have a drinking water standard for perchlorate
is California, which set 6 ppb or less as an allowable concentration
back in 2004. But that state’s Office of Environmental
Health Hazard Assessment recently proposed lowering the
standard to 1 ppb based on new data regarding environmental
exposure, possible effects of perchlorate and consideration
of infants as a susceptible population.
If the EPA develops
a tough new standard, almost every state will need to readjust
its water monitoring systems to take into account how much
perchlorate is making its way to our taps and into the foods
we eat—a no doubt costly process but one that will
greatly benefit both current and future generations.
Working Group; EPA