::human footprints::national geographic program::april132008::







by Dan Kulpinski

Our human footprint doesn’t end after we buy and consume things; the final impact occurs when we discard items – and we Americans discard four-fifths of a ton of trash per person, per year.
Here are the numbers: Americans generated 251 million tons of trash in 2006, the most recent year for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has data. Our per capita trash disposal rate was 4.6 pounds per person, per day. Sixty-five percent came from residences, while 35 percent came from schools and commercial locations such as hospitals and businesses.
Where does it all end up? Fifty-five percent gets buried in landfills, 33 percent gets recycled, and 12.5 percent goes to incinerators.
Collecting and transporting trash and recyclables is a mammoth task. According to the National Solid Waste Management Association, the solid waste industry employs 368,000 people. They use 148,000 vehicles to move garbage to 1,754 landfills and 87 incinerators. They also pick up recyclables at curbside in 8,660 communities and take them to 545 materials recovery facilities for sorting. Solid waste is big business to the tune of about $47 billion in annual revenue.


The Benefits of Recycling
Recycling avoids many of these impacts. When you recycle something, the item gets sorted and used to make similar items – aluminum cans, for example, contain about 41 percent recycled aluminum. It takes 95 percent less energy to make a can from recycled aluminum than from virgin bauxite ore.
By using recycled materials, the manufacturer creates fewer greenhouse gases. Recycling also reduces climate change emissions from incinerators and landfills. “Recycling is a win-win in terms of global warming pollution,” said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and director of its national solid waste project.

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