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Reading Selection, Lesson 19

Recycling: It’s not over ‘til it’s over

Symbol to indicate that an item may be recycled.

Do you recognize this symbol? You may have seen it printed or stamped on many common objects, including cars, computers, plastic or glass bottles, food and drink cans, or cardboard boxes. The symbol points out that the object can be recycled—that is, reused in some way or processed into a new object or a different material.

Why recycle? Two main reasons. First, recycling reduces the need for landfills. There are more than 3,000 active landfills and 10,000 old landfills in the United States. Finding new places for landfills is becoming harder. Landfills must be located near population centers where they won’t harm the environment, but few people want to live close to one. Second, recycling reduces the need to mine or harvest natural resources. Recycling paper means cutting down fewer trees. Recycling yard waste means using less fertilizer. Recycling aluminum cans means using less energy to produce aluminum from ore.

Whether your neighborhood does curbside recycling, delivers to “drop-off” centers, or receives deposit money when bottles and cans are returned, chances are that your community has already begun recycling. Many communities no longer take all of their trash to a landfill. Instead, they separate plastics, aluminum and other metals, paper, glass, and even appliances. They take these materials to recovery facilities to begin the recycling process. Today, the United States recycles more than one-quarter of all its waste. But we still have a long way to go. Some cities recycle about 50 percent of their waste! This gives the rest of us a great goal, but even that record can be better.

Amount of waste produced in the US in 2005: 245.7 Million Tons



Yard Trimmings


Food Scraps






Rubber, Leather and Textiles








Paper makes up about 35 percent of our waste. Most types of paper waste can be easily recycled. Paper recyclers shred discarded paper and cardboard, add water, mash the mixture into a thick pulp, and pass the pulp through a filter and a press to remove the water. They then heat the paper fibers to finish the process. The fibers are now ready to be processed into usable products.

graph of what happens to recovered paper

Eleven percent of our waste is plastic. Plastics are synthetic materials made from petroleum. Unfortunately, we recycle only a small fraction of discarded plastics. Recycled plastics are broken up and melted so they can be made into new objects—like more bottles and jugs! They can even be mixed together to form composite building materials, such as this bench!

Image of metal composite bench

Recycling steel and aluminum is especially productive. Steel is the most recycled material in the United States. Since magnets attract steel, it is easy to separate steel from other wastes. Steel from cars, old buildings, and appliances can be recycled. So can the steel cans that many of our foods are stored in. These cans are sometimes also called tin cans, but most of the can is made from steel. There is only a thin layer of tin on the inside to protect the food. During the recycling process, this tin is removed. All new steel materials are made using some recycled material.

Although aluminum recycling is more common than ever, we still waste too much aluminum. In fact, between 1990 and 2000 we put enough aluminum in landfills to make more than 300,000 large airplanes! Recycling aluminum saves more than the material from the Earth. It takes 95 percent less energy to make a recycled can than it does to make one from scratch. Recycled aluminum is back in the store, as a new can, in about 90 days!

Aluminum and steel recycling use a similar method. The metals are first crushed into large bricks. Then, the bricks are heated in a large furnace until they melt. Once melted, the steel or aluminum is reshaped into sheets called ingots, which can then be used to make new materials.

Some states forbid yard waste—such as grass clippings and leaves—in landfills. Instead, they support another kind of recycling program: composting. This is a special type of recycling that can be done on a small scale in your own backyard or on a large scale at community facilities. The first step in composting is mixing the yard waste together. Naturally occurring insects, bacteria, and worms break down the waste into a material rich in nutrients that can be used as a fertilizer. Composting eliminates a lot of trash that would end up in landfills and reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

Does your family or school recycle? If not, maybe it’s worth finding out how to become part of your local recycling effort.

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