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I teach a lab section for an Introduction to Environmental Science course at UC Denver where we cover topics from water, food systems, and risk assessment to energy, climate change and personal consumption. This week’s topic is about waste in all its forms – landfill, recycle, compost, hazardous, electronic and sewage.

At the beginning of each semester I ask everyone to provide a personal historical narrative about their relationship with the environment. A common response from students is to write about their familiarity with recycling and the attitude their family has toward the act. If I were to consider my students from the past few years as a sample population of the world at large, recycling appears to have become the poster child of the environmentalist movement.

Which begs the question – when did the third “R” become the most recognized “R”? What happened to first REDUCING and then REUSING before RECYCLING?

According to greenwaste.com the average person generates 4.5 pounds of trash every day (or about 1.5 tons of solid waste annually). Although 75% of this waste is recyclable, the EPA estimates only 30% of this actually escapes the landfill. With these statistics in mind, it makes a lot of sense to reconsider our daily habits regarding what we use and throw away. After all, there is no such thing as “away” – just out of sight and, often, out of mind.

And if you ever wonder what happens within a recycling facility, I’ll leave you with this educational video from Boulder County Recycling Center about the single-stream recycling process:


— Amy DePierre