A plastic bottle can be tossed out and end up as litter, tossed in a trashcan and end up in a landfill, or tossed into a recycle bin and be reincarnated into something useful.
Does it make a difference? It can make a dramatic difference when there are thousands of us making the best choice for that bottle and our environment.
I wonder sometimes if people who litter think the fast food bag or cigarette butt they carelessly toss magically disappears. Poof! It is gone … in their minds, I guess. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Littered recyclable items can have a long lifespan and hurts our environment.
Let’s look at some typical litter:
• Plastic bottles can take up to 650 years to fall apart.
• Aluminum cans take between 80 and 200 years to decompose, while tin cans take around 50 years.
• Foam items like a plastic buoy can take 80 years, and Styrofoam cups can take 50 years. It is hard to find companies accepting foam and Styrofoam for recycling, so we need to try to limit the use of these products when possible.
• Glass bottles can take up to 1 million years to decompose! Glass can be a challenging item to recycle but because of the lifespan, it is crucial to recycle.
• Plastic bags can take 10 to 20 years to decompose. These bags don’t have to be trashed after a single use. They can be reused or taken to back to stores to recycle.
• A cigarette butt can take from one to five years to decompose. Some, however, take more than 20 years. Think about that the next time you start to flick that butt on the ground.
So what if these products end up in a landfill? For some, like cigarette butts, the landfill is the only effective option — unless people stop smoking completely. But many of the items — plastic, aluminum, steel, glass, paper — can be used many times over by making sure they are recycled.
Most of materials we use can be recycled. Recycling can keep some of the 250 million tons of trash Americans generate each year out of landfills. Over time, landfill space is becoming more and more limited. Landfills are expensive to access, operate and maintain long after they are full and closed.
Aluminum cans are one of the best items to recycle because there is no limit on the number of times aluminum can be reused. Consequently, aluminum is a valuable commodity, and is four times more valuable than other recyclable materials, according to the Aluminum Association.
Materials like paper do not have an infinite life. How many times paper can get recycled depends on the kind of paper. For normal printer or copy paper, you can probably send it through the recycling process five to seven times before the paper fibers become too short. At this point, they can be mixed with virgin paper or used for other purposes, according to the EPA, to extend their usefulness.
Many products we buy — wine, pickles, jam, pasta sauce — are packaged in glass. But that doesn’t mean glass has to be a huge contributor to landfill waste because glass can be recycled relatively easily. Glass doesn’t lose any quality even when it’s recycled over and over, according to Arizona Recycles. It is also more cost-effective to recycle than to create new glass.
Plastic, like paper, degrades when recycled, so it is often remade once, according to National Geographic and The New York Times. Plastic containers and bags typically find new uses in other products. Plastic fibers can be made into a variety of materials, including clothing and furniture.
Can you see why litter prevention and recycling are such critical issues? Litter on our roads and green spaces is harmful to our community in a number of ways. Also, there is only so much room in this crowded world for landfills.
We have to look at more beneficial ways to process garbage, and change our single serving, "use and toss" habits. The final destination for recyclable items is the recycle bin.
To learn even more about litter prevention and options for recycling, contact Keep Liberty Beautiful at 912-880-4888 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Swida is executive director of Keep Liberty Beautiful.