DR. WALLACE: My school friends and I are really into recycling. We collect newspapers, plastic bottles, bottle caps and a variety of other items including aluminum cans and even scrap metal.
Our generation is well known for being quite interested in keeping our planet healthy, and recycling is one of the best ways we feel we can make a difference at our age.
The other day, we were asking each other about how many times we thought paper, bottles and cans could be successfully recycled. Do you know? Is it limited or unlimited in terms of how many times the same piece of paper, for example, can be recycled? — Green Teens, via email
GREEN TEENS: The short answer is that it varies by item. But your excellent question and the good deeds you and your fellow teens are doing definitely warrant a deeper answer.
The National Geographic Society has done many excellent studies and articles on various types of recycling and the dynamics of the markets for those products. They indicate that the most important factor regarding recycling is that it must be profitable for the recycler or no local market will exist. They identify the marketplace for recycling and the local (city) government policies as the two largest factors in recycling in any location across our nation.
If there's enough demand in a local market, then recyclers and companies will pay for various post-consumer recyclables. We know plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass bottles are usually easy to recycle locally. But other items are more hit-or-miss. Think old computer keyboards, monitors and related equipment. Without market demand, those recyclables are almost useless; placing them in the recycling bin won't make a difference if monetary profits can't be made. Also, if the materials are incurably dirty post-use, they still may end up in landfill or incinerator.
Furthermore, not all plastic is recyclable, such as plastic bags. Plastic straws are not recyclable either. Your local government also plays an essential role, as regulations create market opportunities for companies to recycle legally mandated products. But every municipality is different. Before you throw something away, check with your local municipality to see what items have recycling markets in your area. One good thing you and your fellow "green teens" can do is contact your city and those cities in your surrounding area to fully and completely learn what can be recycled. Then, armed with this information, you can reach out to your community to let them know what items you can collect on a regular basis as needed. This might create a nice part-time business opportunity for your group, and you will be keeping our planet's health a high priority along the way.
Public investment in recycling systems is integral to their long-term sustainability and success. While the price of purchasing a new piece of plastic is far cheaper than paying someone's salary to manage and sort recyclables, the environmental cost is substantially greater. Subsidies, investments and public support go a long way.
Let's close this most important topic with some interesting facts. Believe it or not, most plastics can only be recycled once or twice before they are downcycled, meaning they are recycled into something of a lesser value. Most of the time, plastic is downcycled into a fabric because it is no longer recyclable after one use.
Next up are metals, most of which can be infinitely recycled! Metals are generally categorized into ferrous and nonferrous. "All metals have an unlimited lifespan, and it is always a good idea to recycle them, regardless of how much you have," says the Earth911 website. For example, steel is one type of metal that consists primarily of mined ore. According to Recycle Nation, "By recycling one ton of steel, we can prevent the mining of 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone." Aluminum can similarly be recycled infinite times. So, be sure to track down each and every aluminum can you can find in your area, as they will definitely be reborn as a new useful product!
Paper's ability to be recycled, however, is lower after every use. Paper is made up of long fibers, so every time it is recycled, those fibers break down and become shorter, which makes it harder to be recycled the next time. "The average number of times your printer paper can be recycled is about five to seven times," Earth911 says. "After that, the fibers will become too short and can't be made into copier paper anymore. From that point, it can be made into more of a paper paste and can be used for things like newspaper or egg cartons," or for the artists' papier-mache.
Last but definitely not least is glass. Does using glass containers harm the environment? Absolutely not! Glass, like metal, can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Because glass is harder to create from scratch, it is actually more cost-effective to reuse and recycle glass, making it one of the very best items to find its way back to a recycling center.
Thank you for your earnest letter. This is a wonderful topic for people of all ages worldwide to study and learn about, especially teenagers!
Dr. Robert Wallace welcomes questions from readers. Although he is unable to reply to all of them individually, he will answer as many as possible in this column. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Dr. Robert Wallace and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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