Most of the items you toss in your recycling bin are reincarnated as similar products: That Coke can becomes a new aluminum can, a glass jelly jar becomes another glass jar, and old newspapers help form new newsprint. But here are a few uses you might not have thought of:
Filler for pillows and sleeping bags
Insulation and padding
Paper egg cartons
"Glasphalt" (for highway construction)
As more and more plastic is recycled, scientists and manufacturers are working to develop new products made from recycled plastic.
But what do you do with the mountain of carpeting 2.5 million tons of home and commercial that winds up in US landfills each year?
Already, a handful of manufacturers are remanufacturing old carpet converting it into new carpet or turning it into Polarfleece, car parts, and plastic lumber. The process reuses the plastic resins found in much modern synthetic carpeting.
Besides unburdening landfills, remanufacturing holds potential for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.
Currently, only about 4 percent of discarded carpeting is being recycled; another 1 or 2 percent is cleaned and reused as carpeting. But thanks to a new program, there is hope that as much as 40 percent of old carpeting will be recycled or reused within 10 years.
The new initiative, called the National Carpet Recycling Agreement, is an effort, similar to ones in Europe, designed to foster manufacturer responsibility throughout a product's life cycle. It's called product stewardship.
The purpose of the agreement, says Sherry Enzler, who worked more than two years to help hammer out the agreement, is to establish an alliance that can recover large quantities of the carpet stripped from America's floors over the next 10 years. Ultimately, if the agreement is renewed, the goal could be a 90 percent recovery rate, assuming national participation.
Ms. Enzler is director of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. The carpeting issue came to her department's attention several years ago after a waste-sort study in which people actually dug through garbage indicated that 5 percent of the trash entering Minnesota's landfills is carpeting.
Carpet manufacturers are central to this recovery effort. They have formed an independent group, the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE), to draft an action plan and monitor progress in carpet recovery.
"We need to start looking at waste as a resource," Enzler says.
Major carpet manufacturers, the Environmental Protection Agency, and eight states Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland, California, Oregon, Massachusetts, and North Carolina have signed the pact. Other states are expected to come on boardover time.
Every ton of paper made from recycled materials saves about 17 trees, 6,953 gallons of water, 463 gallons of oil, 587 pounds of air pollution, 3.06 cubic yards of landfill space, and 4,077 kilowatt hours of energy.
In one year, recycling allows aluminum companies to save the equivalent of more than 19 million barrels of oil enough energy to supply the electrical needs of Pittsburgh for six years.
Annual steel recycling saves enough energy to supply electricity to about 18 million households for a year.
Recycling one glass bottle or jar saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for four hours.
Recycling 1 pound of steel cans can power a 60-watt light bulb for more than a day.
Every time a ton of steel cans is recycled, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,000 pounds of coal, and 40 pounds of limestone are preserved, and more than 5,400 British thermal units (BTUs) of energy are conserved.
Making cans from recycled aluminum cuts related air pollution (sulfur dioxides, for example, which create acid rain) by 95 percent.
Making recycled paper generates 74 percent less air pollution and 35 percent less water pollution, and uses 64 percent less energy than making paper from virgin timber.
If all morning newspapers in the US were recycled for one day, 41,000 trees would be saved and 6 million tons of waste would never end up in landfills.
Every person in the US receives junk mail that represents the equivalent of 1-1/2 trees a year. If only 100,000 people stopped their junk mail, as many as 150,000 trees annually would not be cut down for paper production. If 1 million people did this, up to 1.5 million trees would be left standing. (One tree can filter up to 60 pounds of pollutants from the air each year.)
Motor oil never wears out, it just gets dirty. Oil can be recycled, re-refined, and used again, reducing our reliance on imported oil.
Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, American Forest and Paper Association, Can Manufacturing Institute, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Weyerhauser, Consumer Research Institute, "The Green Consumer," American Plastics Council, National Polymers Inc., California Department of Conservation, City of Westfield, Mass.