12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Recycles Day

"In Beverly Hills... they don't throw their garbage away.
They make it into television shows."
~Woody Allen

Americans generate almost twice the amount of trash of other developed countries -- a whopping 4 pounds of garbage per person everyday. That's 301,139,947 U.S. residents producing just about four pounds of trash each equaling 1,204,559,788 pounds or 602,280 tons of trash each day... the weight of about 580,000 Liberty Bells.

The U.S. currently has approximately 3,000 active landfills. Buried and minimally forgotten (unless you live near one), the trash that each American creates leads to water contamination, land erosion, methanol off-gassing, and disgusting odors. (Peee-euw!) Much of this tonnage of waste within the landfills actually retards bio-degration, therefore defeating their intentions.

An overhaul to landfill systems, recycling, making producers and manufacturers responsible for the end-life of their products, biodegradable packaging, and learning to adjust the way we as individuals consume, are all part of the long-term solution. But when it comes down to it -- it's our own responsibility to reduce, reuse and recycle, and to become more educated about the long-term consequences of landfills, and the endless benefits offered by up-cycling and recycling paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, scrap metal, and fabric.

75 percent of trash is recyclable but unfortunately only 25 percent actually gets recycled. Curbside recycling makes it easy for households to be part of the solution. It's easy to divert materials from landfills and incinerators. Here are some things to consider when you're recycling.

When adequately exposed to the elements, paper decomposes completely in 2-5 months. But if thrown away as regular trash, once the plastic bag itself eventually deteriorates in about 20 years, then maybe the paper entombed inside the plastic trash-bag will finally have its chance to decompose as well. Sadly -- paper in all its many shapes and sizes -- amounts to almost half of what we end up sending to landfills. However, if Americans recycled just one tenth of their paper, it would save 25 million trees a year.

If you read anything in print you should know that the act of recycling paper decreases the demand for virgin pulp thereby reducing the devastation of forests, and the overall amount of air and water pollution created during the manufacture of the paper. It's always best to separate paper into white office paper, newspaper, cardboard, and mixed-color paper, and tie each type separately. Once sorted and bundled, carry the items to be picked up curbside at the appropriate time on the designated days for your community.

In 1988, the American Society of the Plastics Industry developed the resin identification code that is used to indicate the most common polymer materials used in the manufacture of a product or in packaging to assist recyclers with sorting the collected materials.

To check the recycle-ability of a plastic item, look to see if there's a Universal Recycling Symbol (URS -- usually on the bottom). Next, look to see if there's a number inside the triangle. The numbers are meant to give us a leg up on what kinds of resins were used. If there is no number, then the material is considered "generically recyclable" (in which case there are codes beneath or near the triangle indicating the materials used). Each number, from 1 to 7 indicates what type of polymer was used.

At the moment it's only economically viable to recycle items with a URS triangle with the No. 1 which is PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) or No. 2, which is HDPE (high-density polyethylene). But scattered across our great nation, local recycling programs are stretching the range of plastics that might be recycled as the technology to do so becomes available. (It takes 20 years for a plastic bag to decompose but up to 250 years for a plastic cup to decompose.)

Glass that finds its way into recycling systems is usually comprised of clear, green, and brown bottles and broken glassware -- and when recycled -- the process uses less energy than manufacturing glass from scratch and doesn't produce the same carbon dioxide as when it is newly manufactured. (A glass bottle takes 4,000 years or more to decompose - even longer if it's in the landfill.)

Aluminum may be reused by simply re-melting the metal -- it's energy efficient and a lot less expensive than making new. (It takes 500 years for an aluminum can to decay.)

Aluminum lawn chairs, bicycles, cabinets, chain link and wire fencing, doors, grills, household appliances, iron furniture, lawn mowers (with oil and gas drained) metal sheds (disassembled), railings, refrigerators and freezers (doors must be removed), sewing machines, shower stalls, swing sets, wire clothes sometime they all become scrap. Instead of sending then to the dump consider a curbside scrap metal collection. When arranged in advance, pickup is often free and made on your regular recycling day. (Don't place your scrap metal items into your blue bin.)

The best way to recycle fabric is to contribute your old duds to a charitable organization. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Solid Waste, Americans have dumped over 9 million tons of just about anything with a thread count into landfills nationwide. When you donate your unwanted, unraveling, or otherwise thread-worn garments to your favorite charity -- even though it probably won't end up resold as clothing for someone in need -- it will probably have a very green reincarnation through re-sale to individuals and textile recyclers.

Unfortunately no man or woman comes with an operational manual (well, at least I've never found mine!) Turning a new leaf to becoming "green" can seem overwhelming. By not considering our carbon footprint, spending habits, and waste, we're all adding to global warming by not recycling. Locate the recycling guide provided by your city, state or county (the regulations change from region to region) and keep it handy.

When it comes to cleaning your recyclables, to prevent critters or bugs, it's fine to rinse your metal cans, glass and plastic containers. But no need to go nuts - the heat used during the recycling process deals with many contaminants.

As it says on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof." By working together -- and by using our noggins -- our actions will produce a healthier land and a healthier environment for all the inhabitants thereof.