Recycling: Paper, Plastic, or Poison? Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

When people think of the word “recycling,” most probably picture the types of plastic bins found in many household where certain types of paper and plastic are separated from the regular garbage, and placed outside at the curb on trash day. This type of recycling is intended to turn materials that would otherwise end up o a landfill into useable products. While this picture of recycling is fairly accurate, there are many other aspects to the processes and purposes of recycling that many people may not be aware of. Recycling is not just a matter of “re-using” certain types of paper or plastic; it is also a matter of keeping dangerous materials out of landfills and the environment in general. In the age of technology, millions of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices that contain lead, mercury and other dangerous materials are thrown away every year. As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, computers and cell phones become obsolete more quickly than ever. It is imperative that the owners of such devices understand the dangers of throwing them away in the trash, and that they learn to recycle their phones and computers instead of sending them to the landfill.

The contemporary concept of recycling was born in the 20th century. Throughout history, people have always found ways to reuse materials that still had value even if they were no longer adequate for the purposes for which they had originally been designed or built. Wood that had originally been used in the construction of a barn, for example, could be used to make furniture or other items once the barn had reached its end of life (eol) phase in its life cycle (Torzewski). Clothing that no longer fit or was torn beyond repair could be cut up for use as rags. These are just two examples of the countless ways that various things have been repurposed after they reached eol status in the life cycle of their original purpose.

The use of items and materials for new purposes after they reach eol status has been going on for as long as humanity has been able to make clothes and furniture and toys and houses. What we think of as “recycling” today, however, is a more recent development. The act of taking certain specific materials and dismantling, shredding, melting, or otherwise destroying them for the purpose of making something entirely new from them has only been going on for a few decades. The idea hs its roots in the ear of World War II, where the public was encouraged to be as frugal as possible, and to re-use or re-purpose whatever household items and materials they could in order to save money and to allow valuable public resources to be used for the war effort whenever possible (Torzewski). This public perception of recycling became even more firmly established in the 1970s when a recycling “symbol” was created (Team Tree Hugger).

The symbol of three green arrows following each other in a never-ending circle, coupled with the words “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” is now a universally-recognized symbol for the act of recycling (Team Tree Hugger). Many people have items with that symbol in their homes, as it if typically embossed on the sides of the plastic recycling containers distributed to those whose households are within recycling zones. This recycling symbol was created by a man named Gary Anderson, who worked for a paper company in southern California, and who was interested in a new idea called “Earth Day” (Team Tree Hugger). The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and was celebrated with events that took place in cities around the U.S. and the world; Earth Day was intended to help raise awareness about environmental concerns such as pollution and the overuse of natural resources. The company Mr. Anderson worked for was already making efforts to use recycled materials in the production of their paper products, and was looking for ways to make their customers and the public aware of these efforts. Mr. Anderson originally intended his recycling symbol to be used by his company, but it very quickly became adopted by the general public (Team Tree Hugger).

The three words that accompany Mr. Anderson’s symbol are significant; while it is known as the “recycling” symbol, it actually has a broader message. The two words that precede the word “Recycle” are “Reduce” and “Reuse,” and these words are at least as important as the last word, if not more so (Palliser). The message that those involved in recycling efforts wish to convey is not just that items and materials can be recycled, but that it is also important to reduce the amount of natural resources we all use and to reuse items and materials as often as possible, rather than throwing them away after their initial use (Palliser). This concept is an integral part of the recycling movement; it focuses on the idea that humans produce far too many products and materials that are intended to be discarded after a single use. One area that gets particular attention within this context is packaging (Palliser). Millions of products are bought and sold every day that are packaged in materials that will be thrown away immediately, and will simply end up in ever-growing landfills.

When people think of recycling, it is often packaging that garners the most attention. Those who recycle in their homes may take the packaging off of a recently-purchased item or product, separate the plastic from the paper or cardboard, and place the various parts of the packaging into the appropriate containers before putting those containers at curbside once or twice a week. Having taken these steps, many people may feel as if they are doing all they can where recycling is concerned, and may give little thought to the fact that the benefits of these efforts are actually just targeting a small part of a much larger problem. While some of the materials that people dispose of every day may very well be broken down and then built back up into new, useable products or materials, there are many more items and materials that are ending up in landfills every day that are quite literally poisoning the environment, and millions of people simply have no idea how many of the things they throw away are actually quite dangerous (Palliser).

One of the greatest threats to the environment, in terms of what sorts of things end up in landfills, is the remains of obsolete, outdated, or simply non-functional electronic items (Torzewski). For the first few decades that computers began to be widely used by the public, computer screens were made with Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs). These CRTs contain, among other things, leaded glass, mercury, and other potentially dangerous materials. The amounts of mercury and other metals in CRTs is relatively small, but the amount of lead, contained in the leaded glass used to make the actual screen, is fairly significant. Although most modern landfills are designed to trap as many materials as possible to keep them from entering the surrounding environment, these efforts are not always successful (Torzewski). Additionally, older landfills, such as can often be found in larger cities where their landfills were designed and built decades ago, are not always constructed in a way that keeps dangerous materials from seeping into the land and water (Torzewski).

By the early 20th century plasma screens, Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs), and other technologies used to make flat-screen televisions and computer monitors, had made CRTs almost entirely obsolete. In 1998 it was estimated that 20 million computers with CRT monitors became obsolete, while only 11% of those computers were recycled (Torzewski). That means that the other 89% of those computers are either gathering dust somewhere or ended up in landfills, where the lead from the leaded glass was left to slowly seep into the surrounding environment, poisoning the earth and entering groundwater supplies.

There are ways to recycle these CRTs, though many people are unaware that these old computers should even be recycled. There are two primary ways to recycle CRTs: the first is to disassemble the computers by hand, separating the leaded glass for melting; the second is to shred the computers, and to then use some fairly complicated technologies that identify and then retrieve the lead and other valuable materials from the shredded remains of the old computers (Torzewski). Neither approach to recycling obsolete CRTs is without drawbacks; most notably, each approach is fairly expensive. Disassembling computers by hand is a time-consuming process, meaning that employees must be paid for that time. Shredding computers before retrieving the lead and other materials takes less time, but the technology used in the process is expensive, and not all recycling facilities can afford to make the investment in such technology. The costs of each approach are greater than the value of the retrieved materials, meaning that in terms of actual dollars, each approach has a “negative value” (Torzewski).

When assessing the “negative value” of recycling CRTs (and other obsolete technologies), it must be remembered that the potential damage to the environment caused by such items scan lead to costs that are far greater than the supposed negative value of the results of the recycling process (Palliser). In that context, the “value” of recycling and retrieving the lead and other materials from CRTs is immeasurable, and there is little question that the expenditures for such recycling efforts are worth making. What is most necessary to consider, when discussing the recycling of CRTs and other electronic items, is how few people recognize the importance of such recycling efforts, and how imperative it is that such items not be disposed of in landfills (Anonymous).

While the direct costs of recycling CRTs are greater than the value of the retrieved materials, most municipal recycling centers recognize how important it is to keep such items and materials from entering the landfills, and have either already established processes to recycle CRTs or are actively developing the means to do so (Torzewski). Though the efforts made by recycling centers to keep CRTs and other electronic items from ending up in landfills are to be commended, that is only half the battle. The other half of that battle involves finding effective ways to inform the public about the importance of recycling old computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices. There are only so many ways to get the word out about the need to recycle electronic devices, and it is often difficult to effectively change the habits of a public that is used to simply throwing away devices that no longer work.

As is the case with so many things, the best way to educate the public about the need to recycle electronic devices is to begin such efforts early. Schools throughout the United States have established programs intended to teach young children about recycling in an effort to establish positive habits at an early age (Downs). As the population continues to grow, and as the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices becomes more and more common, there will be many more millions of these devices becoming obsolete, outdated, or broken every year. As the potential threat to the environment from such devices continues to grow, we all have a collective responsibility to make sure that the life cycle of these devices does not continue to oppose a threat to the life cycle of humanity.

Works Cited

Anonymous. “Rethinking Recycling.” Leadership for Student Activities. October 2011. Web June 2012.

Downs, Andreae. “Less Trash; Higher Recycling Rate.” Globe Correspondent. 17 June 2011. Web June 2012.

Palliser, Janna. “Revisiting Recycling.” Science Scope. November 2011. Web June 2012.

Torzewski, Kate. “Recycling Cathode ray Tubes.” Chemical Engineering. April 2009. Web June 2012.

Team Tree Hugger. “How to Go Green: Recycling.” Treehugger.com. Web June 2012.

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