CLOSE
Original image
istock

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

Original image
istock

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making towards ecoconsciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These staggering facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. THE UNITED STATES'S RECYCLING RATE IS LOW—REALLY LOW.

The organization Recycle Across America is trying to change this with their Let's Recycle Right! campaign, which uses society-wide standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. In fact, the organization's Executive Director, Mitch Hedlund, isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is an accurate one because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables. "Currently, the U.S. recycling rate is at 34.5 percent and much of those materials are so highly contaminated with garbage that I'm not convinced that 34.5 percent is even accurate for actual 'recycled' material," she says. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. PROPER RECYCLING RESULTS IN BIG MONETARY SAVINGS.

iStock

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing one universal label clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage. They rolled out the labels at all of their schools. Another story, as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. NO TWO RECYCLE HAULERS' RULES ARE CREATED EQUAL.

So what on Earth should you be putting in those bins? The message is still a bit confusing, as there's no industry-wide standard for recyclables, but the creation of a national alliance of haulers, processors, and non-profits is in the works. "There were unspoken rules by haulers and recycling processors before that said no caps on bottles," says Hedlund, citing an example of the complex recycling guidelines. "If caps are on bottles, the bottles will go to the landfill. Then many haulers realized that people keep putting caps on bottles and the processors discovered that the plastic the caps are made of is actually more valuable than the plastic material of the bottles they're made for. Now some haulers are deciding the caps should stay on bottles and they will create a technology to separate the two plastics during processing. But this isn't all haulers in the U.S. and therefore the messaging still isn't reaching the public in a unified way."

4. CLOTHING CAN BE RECYCLED, BUT IT RARELY IS.

iStock

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, but thanks to DoSomething.org's Comeback Clothes campaign and their partner H&M, you can bring clothes that aren't worth donating to charity to one of H&M's retail stores and they'll make sure it heads to the right place—meaning, not a landfill. Hilary Gridley, Environmental Campaigns Specialist for DoSomething.org, says, "11.1 million tons of recyclable clothing, shoes, and textiles end up in landfills every year. We did the math and realized that's the equivalent of 70 billion t-shirts."

5. EIGHTY-FIVE PERCENT OF CLOTHING CAN BE RECYCLED.

Gridley explains what happens when items are processed through the Comeback Clothes campaign: "H&M works with a company called I:CO and the clothes are sorted into three different categories: re-wear, reuse, and recycling," she says. "So re-wear, clothes that can be re-worn and are in good enough condition, are sold as secondhand goods worldwide. Reuse, clothes that are no longer suitable for wearing, are converted into other products. They can be broken down into threads and remade into new clothes. And then recycle, clothes that are in terrible shape and there's nothing else to be done with them, those are turned into fibers that are used to make new products, like insulation for buildings."

6. ALUMINUM IS THE WORLDS MOST RECYCLED PACKAGING PRODUCT.

iStock

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. It is infinitely recyclable, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form.

7. THAT SODA CAN YOU'RE DRINKING FROM COULD FIND ITS WAY BACK TO YOU QUICKER THAN YOU THINK.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. SCRAP RECYCLING IS BIG BUSINESS.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a "junkyard industry," says Kent Kiser, Assistant Vice President of Industry Communications for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI). "In 2013, for instance, U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap materials, saving significant amounts of energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preserving natural resources, and limiting the amount of material that would otherwise go to landfills. From that total, U.S. scrap recyclers exported almost 43 million metric tons of scrap commodities in 2013, helping the U.S. trade balance."

Original image
arrow
science
11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
Original image

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Weird
Switzerland Flushes $1.8 Million in Gold Down the Sewer Every Year
Original image
iStock

Switzerland has some pretty valuable sewer systems. As Bloomberg reports, scientists have discovered around $1.8 million worth of gold in the country's wastewater, along with $1.7 million worth of silver.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology examined sewage sludge and effluents, or discharged liquid waste, from 64 water treatment plants and major Swiss rivers. They did this to assess the concentrations of various trace elements, which are "increasingly widely used in the high-tech and medical sectors," the scientists explained in a press statement. "While the ultimate fate of the various elements has been little studied to date, a large proportion is known to enter wastewater."

The study, which was recently published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, revealed that around 94 pounds of gold makes its way through Switzerland's sewage system each year, along with 6600 pounds of silver and high concentrations of rare metals like gadolinium and niobium. For the most part, these metals don't harm the environment, researchers say.

With gold and silver quite literally flowing through their sewers, is there any way that Switzerland could turn their wastewater into wealth? Scientists are skeptical: "The recovery of metals from wastewater or sludge is scarcely worthwhile at present, either financially or in terms of the amounts which could be extracted," the release explains.

However, in the southern canton of Ticino, which is home to several gold refineries, the "concentrations of gold in sewage sludge are sufficiently high for recovery to be potentially worthwhile," they conclude.

Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, and mountains, but it's also home to major gold refineries. On average, around 70 percent of the world's gold passes through Switzerland every year—and judging from the looks of it, much of it goes down the drain. As for the sewer silver, it's a byproduct of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, which is a cornerstone of Switzerland's economy.

[h/t Bloomberg]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios