Swamped by a sea of plastic and paper

Future Tense for Dec. 26, 2007

By Steve Welker

Mount Airy's sanitation workers must dread Boxing Day.

Call it Boxes Day instead.

People in England and many of the British Commonwealth nations, including Canada and Australia, observe Boxing Day on the day after Christmas. They give gifts to the poor and donations to charity.

Many Americans observe Dec. 26 by rushing to stores with returns or exchanges, by buying items with gift cards and Christmas cash and by stocking up on heavily discounted holiday items for next year.

I observed the day — also St. Stephen’s Day, in honor of my patron saint — by hauling trash out of the house for Wednesday or Thursday pickup. Christmas wrapping paper, boxes, other packaging material and normal household trash make up part the load contributed by our family. We also cleaned out stuff that had accumulated in the basement. With my sons’ help, we filled the city’s 96-gallon rolling cart, three 30-gallon plastic cans, four good-sized boxes and a couple of large trash bags. In addition, we set aside enough aluminum cans, bottles and other glass, cardboard and plastic jugs to fill my van for a trip to Mount Airy’s recycling center.

I half-expected the city crew to take one look at our curbside pile, jump back on the truck and go screeching in the opposite direction. Can a garbage truck burn rubber? However, the crew almost miraculously made it all disappear, right down to a few stray bits of Styrofoam “snow” on the ground. Thanks, guys.

As for the recyclables, many people must have had the same idea. When I finally got to the Mount Airy Recycling Center, attendant Price Hawks said a stream of customers jammed the place from 2 o'clock on. Many people cash in pop cans at private recycling centers like Mount Airy Iron & Metal on South Street, but even so, Price had a pile large enough to start a small aluminum mine.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generate about 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day — 4 tons per year from my family of five. That’s 1.7 pounds per day more than in 1960, when I was about my youngest son’s age. Packaging makes up much of the increase.

Back in the 1960s, I wanted a toy robot for Christmas. It came in a simple, six-sided cardboard box. Last year my youngest son received a Robosapiens whose packaging included a die-cut cardboard container with numerous folds and tabs, a 2-square-foot vinyl plastic window, staples and twist-ties, a multi-page manual written in at least three languages (English, Spanish, French) and several Styrofoam blocks.

When I was a kid, we bought our pop in glass bottles and faithfully redeemed them for the deposit. Then R.C. Cola introduced the first aluminum pop cans in 1964; Pepsi brought out 2-liter plastic bottles in 1970; and modern 12-ounce plastic bottles appeared around 1991. This year I took a 55-gallon container full of plastic bottles -- a few milk containers, but mainly soda containers -- to the recycling center.

Years ago, when grandma mailed Christmas presents to my brothers and me, she used one large box and cushioned the wrapped gifts with crumpled newspaper. This year, many of my sons' presents came in individual cardboard boxes often cushioned with polystyrene- or urethane-foam “peanuts” (something Ray McIntire of Dow Chemical invented in 1954, but which didn’t come into wide commercial use until the late 1960s). We filled several trash bags with those peanuts.

The weight isn’t the worst of Americans’ trash; the volume is what fills solid-waste landfills. Those foam peanuts' mass is next to nothing, but the Styrofoam ones can’t be compressed and won’t decay like paper. Plastic jugs weigh much less than glass, but glass breaks down to sand in landfills while plastic containers stay intact. And much of what we threw out this week was nothing but paper or cardboard that weighs relatively little per sheet, but quickly adds up in both weight and volume.

Americans now generate about 83 million tons of paper and paperboard trash each year, which is nearly three times as much as in 1960. The good news is that industry also recycles more of it — nearly half, in fact, which is about 2.5 times more than in 1960. Approximately 80 percent of all newsprint, the paper in your hands, is recycled; so is more than 70 percent of all cardboard.

Recycling also helps remove glass, aluminum, steel, other metals and some plastics from the waste stream.

Trash is weighing on my mind — sorry, couldn’t resist the pun — because, seriously, it shocked me to see how much we set out at curbside last week. So here’s my New Year’s resolution: to do more recycling and reuse ... and in the future.


Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.

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