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Recycling a Simple Step to Saving Energy

by Laura Lundquist
Montana Kaimin, October 29, 2009

On campus, they're big and blue. Shouldn't be hard to miss. Apparently they are.

They're the recycling bins that sit, ignored, next to many an overflowing garbage can.

Every day, plastic bottles and aluminum cans fill the pebble-studded garbage cans outside the University Center. A mere three steps are all it would take to put them in a recycling bin instead. People may think of recycling as an option or may not think of it at all, but, sooner or later, that's going to have to change.

At the end of this month, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., situated near the western entrance of Glacier National Park, will shut its doors, a victim of a complex power struggle -- literally. The aluminum-smelting operation received cut-rate power from the Bonneville Power Administration. But BPA finally ended it after bowing to pressure from general consumers who had to subsidize the power deal. Now, the aluminum company has reached the point where it can't compete with cheaper overseas aluminum and still make enough money to pay its high power bills.

So, one more aluminum source is gone. But it shouldn't matter.

Metals are a limited resource. Plastic can be manufactured, and while one could argue that production should be limited, if only to reduce the amount that ends up in landfills, it doesn't have the same constraints. But if people never recycled metals, eventually the supply would diminish, causing prices to soar. Manufacturers of consumer goods would turn to other materials, perhaps forced to use inferior ones.

Does it always require crisis before the majority is moved to act? Although it may be a long way off, people could delay such shortages by recycling.

Don't count on miners keeping us supplied. Aluminum may be the most abundant metal on earth, but somebody's still got to find it and process it at affordable prices. Recycling any scrap metal is more energy-efficient than first-time production from ore.

Aluminum is expensive to process. Making aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy than using ore. So when people throw aluminum cans away, or any aluminum for that matter, they are basically throwing away energy.

But people develop a throwaway mindset in this prosperous country. Cheap manufacturing makes it more expensive to fix something than to buy new, so more possessions end up in the landfill. Fewer things would be expendable if modern societies had the constraints of Cuba, not that it should require such extremes. Because of embargos, Cubans have no access to new parts and must come up with inventive ways to keep things running, such as those picturesque cars from the 1950s. They're not doing it for altruistic or nostalgic reasons. Cubans are expert recyclers because they are forced to be.

In the U.S., people are pretty good at recycling if they can get paid for it. Copper, prized for making electrical wire, isn't as available as it once was and scrap copper can fetch a pretty penny. Recycled copper is worth up to 90 percent of the cost of the original copper. People even go so far as to steal copper pipes and roofing so they can sell it. Because of that, a good amount of copper is recycled.

Anything that is common and cheap, like aluminum, is expendable. But it shouldn't be. It's just that the price of things doesn't include the end cost to society in either the loss of materials or degradation of the environment. Some states -- but not Montana -- have figured it out, tacking a few extra cents onto the price of a six-pack to fund a recycling rebate. But money shouldn't be the only motivation.

Americans recycle only 50 percent of their aluminum cans. But that's better than the recycling rate for plastic drink bottles; around 70 percent go into the garbage. At UM, the recycling program says it's diverting 13 to 18 percent of recyclables from the landfill. That's even less than the national averages.

Some people complain that the recycle bins are sometimes full when they try to recycle. That may be so since the recycling program is limited to a schedule and a budget that doesn't allow workers to empty each bin every day.

But, when bins are full, students could carry bottles or cans with them until they find an open bin. It's not a great load to carry. It's just a moment or two. Just a step or two. Just some care and a nod to the future.

Laura Lundquist
Recycling a Simple Step to Saving Energy
Montana Kaimin, October 29, 2009

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