- How much metal do you expect to find in landfills, and why reclaim it?
- What does “downcycled” mean?
- What does “upcycled” mean?
- Why is metal theft so prevalent?
- How dangerous are discarded electronics in a landfill and why would we want to recycle them?
- Can paper only be recycled once?
- What will be done with all of the stuff in the landfills that can still be used as-is?
- What can be done about the organic garbage found in landfills, like melon rinds, tea bags and chicken bones?
- Could something be done on a household or municipal level so that so much salvageable garbage doesn’t ever get landfilled: is zero-waste possible?
- You are saying that Landfill Miners™ can help our local water, land and air, but what can be done about oceans?
- Couldn’t we just leave the landfills alone and worry about it later?
- If recycling is so important, then Fortune 500-type companies would be doing it. Can you name at least one?
- What does the US Environmental Agency think of this idea?
- How could mining landfills for recyclables possibly make hundreds of millions of dollars?
- What sources did you use in your research and for what purpose are you doing this?
1. It’s not always a distant mountain that we are tearing down to mine metal; sometimes it’s one of our own towns. Mining a landfill for its copper pennies, wiring and scrap may sound ineffective, but anything gained there wouldn’t need to be mined, in the traditional sense, elsewhere. Last year, an article in USA Today explained how the 83,000 residents of Florence, AZ, were trying to avoid the copper companies from, over time, sending billions of pounds of sulfuric acid into the ground to leach out the ore. Aside from the dangerous slush of chemicals, the residents were concerned about what sits between the copper in the ground and the surface mining facility: the city’s aquifer. (27) Logically, if we were just mining landfills for copper, it would be an ineffective venture, but we would actually be harvesting so much more, some of which can no longer meet consumer demand in its virgin state. (5)
“The fact remains that recycled materials are commodities.” (22) The Container Recycling Institute estimates that America has thrown billions of dollars into landfills over the last 20 years in the form of soda cans. (6) That’s just aluminum cans, and although they account for more than half of the aluminum recycling, this metal can also be found in demolition waste like window frames, siding, airplane, boat, mobile home and motor home frames and bulkheads, or household waste like lawn furniture, and trash cans. And let’s not forget about beer kegs. (18) Although metals like aluminum are so plentiful these days that they are literally thrown out, 130 years ago, it was so rare and expensive that the Washington Monument was topped with aluminum to show its value, just as some domes in other parts the world are covered in gold. (1) Aside from stripping landfills of billions of dollars to recycle metals, it saves energy, greenhouse emissions, pollutants and natural resources we would use up to mine more. The Aluminum Association states, “Recycling just one can saves the amount of energy it takes to watch the Super Bowl -- in other words, the amount of energy needed to power a television for three hours.” Strip-mining for new aluminum is atrocious in many ways, and separating it from its ore is hellish all by itself, with its process creating tons of carbon dioxide – but recycling the same amount of aluminum creates 95% less carbon dioxide and 97% less water pollution. Also, this incredible metal can be recycled indefinitely, with no loss in quality. (13, 24) And that’s just one metal.
Some other metals that can be pulled from the landfill are chromium, gold, iron, lead, lithium, mercury, nickel, platinum, silver, steel, tantalum, tin, titanium, tungsten, and zinc.
2. According to National Geographic, “Recyclables have opened up new markets for recovered materials that provide benefits to the consumer, businesses and the environment. One of the primary benefits is a reduction in landfill waste.” (21)
Repurposed, also called “downcycled,” takes discarded items and recycles or reuses them in ways that are lower quality than the original item. For instance, a car tire that has lived its life on the road is shredded to bits and made into padded fill for a playground’s surface. It’s still the very same rubber, but it’s worth less than its original purpose as the premium tire. (15) According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than five-hundred million scrap tires in the United States right now, with millions more being discarded every year. (6)
The rental car company Hertz discards about one-hundred and seventy-thousand every year – and now they recycle ever last one. “’We’re the first rental company to commit to zero-waste for tires,’ said Hertz spokesman Rich Broome. ‘We recently went through our operations to see where we could do better environmentally, and we are recovering oil and we don’t waste water, either. Our tire recycling was at best haphazard. We didn’t know what the local operators were doing with them. But because of our agreement with Liberty Tire Recycling, no Hertz tire will ever be landfilled again.’”
Although recycled rubber is low value, it’s not wasted, and it can be separated from the steel wire, which can also be recycled. Ground, downcycled rubber can already be seen on retail shelves as mulch at your local Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart and Costco stores. (17) And that’s just tires.
3. Reused, also called “upcycled,” items are resold as-is to an exploding market demand from designers, craftsmen and artists to be reinvented often without much alteration, leaving the item recognizable, like an old teakettle turned into a planter. The former life is celebrated and often highlighted as opposed to being shredded, melted down or crushed then repurposed. Sometimes the upcycled item is even more valuable than its former self, like an old coffee can that’s been punched with a fancy design, hand-painted and hung in the garden with a candle. The demand is very high for such things as wine bottles (I’ve seen a whole row of these with a string of white holiday lights in each bottle so light shows through the label), outdated television sets with the guts taken out and a dog or cat bed put in, and discarded rakes (with the handle removed, they are hung up, and used as key hooks). Type “upcycle images” into any search-engine to see the beauty of what once was trash. Craftsmen and -women are looking for everything from pipes, pots, and picture frames to pallets, kid’s toys and utensils. (17) “Americans throw away (a staggering) twenty-eight billion bottles and jars every year”: they’re not all broken. (6)
4. “Scrap commodities, such as lead, glass, gold and copper that are pulled and processed from electronics are the largest output of electronics recycling, accounting for approximately 60%.” (10) Altogether, scrap metals have proven they’re value because, for no other reason, metal theft has become so prevalent that forty-eight states have laws requiring scrap metal dealers to provide paper trails, with Florida being the latest – they even require thumbprints! North Carolina requires the seller to pose for a picture with the scraps they are selling! In our great Union, only North Dakota and Alaska have not enacted any such laws.
“The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported this spring that metal theft claims have increased 81% from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2011. States generating the most claims were Ohio, Texas, Georgia, California and Illinois. The bureau reported the increased thefts were driven by rising prices for base metals—especially copper… ‘We're seeing thieves rip off the air-conditioning units off local churches. We've seen them steal manholes, leaving gaping holes in our streets. And we're seeing thieves who are showing disregard for their own lives cutting into electrical stations.’” (19)
Among the noted treasures found in demolition scrap are the non-ferrous metals, which do not weaken in the recycling process because, by definition, they do not contain iron. These discarded metals, like copper, zinc and lead, are worth over five-hundred billion dollars. And steel, a ferrous metal, is the most recycled metal compound, but millions of tons are lost to the landfill. (7)
5. An incalculable number of electronic devices have made their way into landfills. One could imagine that a discarded outdated gadget might be the most toxic solid routinely found in dumps, because of the metals and plastics in the unit, as well as its battery.
On the flipside, more than a hundred million pounds are recycled annually. “The private electronics recycling industry in the United States totals about $5 billion in revenue and has about thirty-thousand workers. The private electronics recycling industry is dominated by a small group of large companies.” (10) But less than 20% is actually recycled here in the States. The rest is either landfilled, or sent overseas for the dangerous process of separating its components, which are sold and remade into a myriad of products before returning to the States for marketing. Sadly, in something approaching a Save the Children commercial, this overseas labor is cheaper, non-regulated, and often performed by children who become sick from the toxins. There are credible companies like CloudBlue, who keep the recycling in the United States, monitor the process closely and protect workers (and landfills) from toxic elements. (11)
6. As electronic as the world has become, the US Environmental Protection Agency states that each American uses the equivalent of a one-hundred foot tall tree in paper products annually. Newspapers have the most chance of being recycled at 73%, but fairing less well are the millions of shiny magazines, brochures, booklets, pamphlets, manuals and the like, collectively accounting for about 20%. Mercifully, both numbers are on the rise.
Recycling paper requires fewer greenhouse emissions than producing paper from trees. And we get to keep the trees, which, among other benefits, also help reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Recycled “post-production” short-fiber newspaper can become other short-fiber products, like toilet paper, tissues, egg cartons, cardstock, kitty litter, and stationery. That’s the low-end. Long-fiber paper can be recycled more than five times before it degrades into short-fiber and can then become toilet paper. (24)
“Every year nearly 900,000,000 trees are cut down to provide raw materials for American paper and pulp mills.” (6) According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “One ton of paper from recycled pulp saves 17 trees, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, 7000 gallons of water, 4200 kWh (enough to heat a home for half a year), 390 gallons of oil, and prevents 60 pounds of air pollutants.” (13)
People throw out artwork, jewelry, bags stuffed with clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, tables, chairs, mirrors, movies, music, games, athletic gear, rakes, shovels, and millions of other random items that were still useful when they were discarded. These are what the scavengers hunt. Each person seems to have their own “ick factor” and be, at some level, a germophobe, but many still see purpose in flea markets, thrift stores, consignment shops, yard sales, curbed boxes of clothes awaiting trash day, online auctions, police auctions, and estate sales, not to mention Good Will and the Salvation Army.
Aside from making money from what is cleared out of landfills, every item sold was not bought new off the shelf by the scavenger – so it’s a smaller carbon footprint. "When you scavenge, you're opting out of that entire cycle. You end up saving the world just by not consuming."
Scavenging is becoming more prevalent – and relevant – as we begin to understand what is really out there. Even if one does not feel comfortable scavenging… one could always become a scavengee, buying the items to resell. The market is already in place with websites like ebay.com, amazon.com, gazelle.com, craigslist.org, freecycle.org, freegan.info, recyclemyjunk.com, and freesharing.org. (20)
Of the landfilled compostable food waste, picture (if you can) more than six million cubic yards. This compost could be left behind, or gathered up and sold incrementally by lots. (6)
Considering that, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about half of the household solid waste produced is organic, if the producers don’t want to recycle messy newspapers, cardboard and the like, they could consider selling them as compost. (26)
The waste management company, Recology, is partnering with the city of San Francisco to help it become garbage-free in less than a decade. They are both trying to make landfills obsolete by redirecting all of the city’s trash to recyclers, composters and resellers rather than the city dump. Recology believes that other waste management company’s idea of dumping their loads and driving away is not waste management at all; it’s just ignoring the problem. I agree.
But, if you reuse the refuse, you are sending it back into commerce, which alone, is outstanding, but you are also not creating a toxic landfill. Recology has become a beacon in their field. “Officials from all over the globe regularly visit the company to learn how to tackle zero-waste in their cities and countries.” The company’s so successful now, that they have a consulting division that tackles specific problems and requests.
Gary Liss, a zero-waste genius, approves of the work Recology is doing. For the past three decades, Liss has advised other cities like sprawling Los Angeles, or mountainous Telluride on going zero-waste. Many states are now passing laws regarding waste management because they recognize that dumps produce poisoned run-off, and incinerator smoke pollutes the air, and the city of San Francisco has made recycling mandatory. (12)
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, floating between Hawaii and California, is now fathoms deep with an area of twice the size of Texas. With a high-majority originating from land (the rest dumped from ships) this plastic poisonous deathtrap is caught in an eddy of winds and currents, with nothing else to do but grow in size.
No one country is to blame, and this flotsam is a collection of debris that even concerns the United Nations. Their environmental program, “estimates that each square mile of the ocean carries 46,000 pieces of plastic litter bobbing on its surface.” (4)
Horrifically, that’s not all. The Atlantic has its own garbage patch already more than twenty years old, and over a thousand miles wide, located east of Bermuda. When a research team went out in a boat to study it, they tried to discover its eastern border – and never found it. (9)
If eight empty toner cartridges contain a gallon of oil in their plastic matrix, (13) how much oil is floating in thousands of square miles of plastic, polluting our world’s oceans? How much garbage sank?
I would love to see Oceanic Garbage-Patch Miners someday, or we can just wait for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to reach our Western Seaboard, Hawaii, or Alaska – actually, someday it could reach any number of countries in the Pacific Rim.
Three-quarters of all of the garbage in the United States is sent to a dead zone, otherwise known as a landfill. Not only is it the end of the line, but the final resting place for a trillion dollars’ worth of recyclables also creates problems of its own.
Landfills are toxic to the air as they exude the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane. “In 2009, 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were eliminated through recycling more than 7 million tons of metals, equal to taking almost 5 million cars off the road in a single year.”
The dead zone of landfills cost municipal and state governments money with absolutely nothing given in return. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, recycling offers more than $200 billion dollars in tax revenue annually, saves the land, the air and the water as well as provides jobs everywhere, including inner cities and other hard-hit low income neighborhoods. (25)
In their Renew Blue initiative, the electronics company Best Buy plans on recycling one billion pounds of electronics by next year, and they have already surpassed the seven-hundred million mark. (8)
General Motors has readjusted its thinking and now sees waste as “a resource out of place.” According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a staggering seven billion tons of manufacturing waste makes it to landfills every year. Currently, GM is pushing for landfill-free, zero-waste manufacturing worldwide. GM reuses everything from plant sludge, to cardboard, to plastics, to wooden pallets, and in return, they earn $1,000,000,000 annually. This is new revenue that they weren’t earning ten years ago. (16)
There are new companies cropping up every day who use, or plan on using, post-consumer waste. NewWood invented a building material that contains half recycled wood and half recycled plastic in its matrix. (14)
13. Finally, even the US Environmental Protection Agency agrees with my summation when they said, “Someday we may be mining our landfills for the resources we've buried.” (6) Everything you’ve read here, except for the idea of Landfill Miners™ (3), and the 2008 Forbes Magazine article (5), was found on the internet with just a few days of research. The recycling companies already exist, there is no shortage of landfills, there is no shortage of Miners, documentaries and reality television are here to stay, and the desire to be “green” is the mood of America (and the world, for that matter). We just need to connect the dots.
14. The idea of mining landfills for recyclables doesn’t mean we’d be mining garbage, it means we’d be mining gold. After an agreement is made between the Network and the Landfill, the Landfill Miners™ get to work, the show is shot, and at the end of the day or week, end companies like contracted recycling collection services pay the network a prearranged per/ton or per/unit price and haul away the items they are designed to process.
- Brennan, John, Demand Media. “Importance of Recycling Aluminum Cans.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Buchwald, Art. www.QuoteGarden.com website. Accessed April 7, 2013.
- Burton, Julie McCulloch. Mediocre – Making Fun of Life. February 25, 2013.
- Cooney, Katherine. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Poses New Threat to Marine Life.” www.Time.com website. Published May 11, 2012; accessed May 22, 2013.
- Davidson, Alex. Forbes Magazine, “Trash Is Cash.” November 17, 2008.
- EPA.gov. “10 Fast Facts On Recycling.” Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Fava, Philip. “Recycle Everything...Including the Kitchen Sink.” www.Forbes.com website. Published September 22, 2011; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Fava, Philip. “How Recycling 1 Billion Pounds Factors into Best Buy's Renew Blue Initiative.” www.Forbes.com website. Published March 26, 2013; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Fletcher, Dan. “Giant Floating Garbage Patch: Now in the Atlantic, Too.” www.Time.com website. Published August 20, 2010; accessed May 22, 2013.
- Gresham, Tom, Demand Media. “The Recycling of Electronic Goods.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Hoshaw, Lindsey. “How to Recycle Your Old Electronics – Recycling Electronics Is So Pervasive That Companies Are Now Vying For Your Trash.” www.Forbes.com website. Published April 1, 2010; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Lodge, Michelle. “The Future of Garbage is – No More Garbage.” www.USAToday.com website. Published February 22, 2013; accessed May 22, 2013.
- www.MIT.edu “Recycling Facts” Accessed May 28, 2013.
- McCue, TJ. “NewWood Recycles Potential 170 Million Pounds of Wood and Plastic Out of Landfills.” www.Forbes.com website. Published March 28, 2012; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Martin, Melanie J., Demand Media. “Recycling vs. Upcycling.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Muller, Joann. “How GM Makes $1 Billion A Year By Recycling Waste.” www.Forbes.com website. Published March 26, 2013; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Motavalli, Jim, Mother Nature Network. “Hertz to Recycle All Its Tires.” www.Forbes.com website. Published October 29, 2012; accessed May 22, 2013.
- Nall, Rachel, Demand Media. “The Different Classes of Aluminum for Recycling.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Neale, Rick. “States Get Tougher on Metal Theft.” www.USAToday.com website. Published October 3, 2012; accessed May 22, 2013.
- Palmer, Kimberly. “How to Save by Scavenging - Before Looking for Hidden Gems in the Trash, Consider These 10 Tips.” www.money.usnews.com website. Published February 28, 2012; accessed May 22, 2013.
- Rogers, Chris Dinesen, Demand Media. “3 Types of Recyclable Goods.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Rogers, Chris Dinesen, Demand Media. “Differences in Recycling & Reprocessing.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Trefis Team. “Coca-Cola Wants To Fill Up Recycle Bin, Stock Going To $75.” www.Forbes.com website. Published December 5, 2011; accessed May 15, 2013.
- Walls-Thumma, Walls, Demand Media. “Newspaper & Magazine Recycling.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Walls-Thumma, Walls, Demand Media. “Recycling Instead of Landfills.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Walls-Thumma, Walls, Demand Media. “What To Do With Recyclable Stuff.” www.NationalGeographic.com website. Accessed May 28, 2013.
- Wagner, Dennis, Craig Harris. “Bitter Debate Over Mining in Small Arizona Town.” www.USAToday.com website. Published September 9, 2012; accessed May 22, 2013.
The facts and figures here are not intended to overwhelm you. It is my intention to move you forward in the realization that there isn't just one pollutant, and if we, as humans, only fixed one pollutant, the dozen others would still kill us. We need broad-sweeping changes that improve sea, land AND air. Landfill Miners will do that.
Albert Einstein said, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” There is nothing we can do, at this level, about nuclear waste, and there’s nothing we can do, at this level, about medical waste – but we can do something, at this level, about landfill waste.