Our Disposable Society

How much of our waste is recycled compared to what is “disposed of”? Who keeps track of this?

Anita Knight, Wheaton, IL

The amount of waste produced in the U.S. had been rapidly increasing over the past three decades, until it peaked in 1994 at 209 million tons. Every year, a greater percentage of that waste is recycled. In 1960, only 6.3 percent of total U.S. waste was recycled, compared to 27 percent in 1995. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports every two years on municipal solid wastes, including paper and cardboard, glass, metals, plastics, rubber, leather, textiles, wood, food, yard trimmings and inorganic wastes. The 1995 report estimated that 208 million tons of waste were produced. Some 56.2 million tons of that were recycled, and 151.8 million tons discarded. There’s progress, but not enough. “I think that for certain materials-glass, plastic and aluminum-we have not made much headway in the past five years,” says Pat Franklin of the Container Recycling Institute. The aluminum can recovery rate has been stagnant since 1990 but, on a brighter note, reclaimed steel has increased 30.5 percent.


Container Recycling Institute
1400 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: (202)797-6839

The water from our well is very hard. Does this result in an unhealthy buildup of minerals in the body over time? Should I use a water softener?

Sunny Mullis, Sturgis, SD

“Hard water actually has a positive relationship to a healthy cardiovascular system,” says Bob Masters of the National Groundwater Association. According to Masters, the calcium and magnesium found in hard water are vital minerals for the body, and the lack of them has been linked to heart disease.

Hard water can, however, damage hot water heater efficiency and block plumbing by forming calcium deposits in water pipes. It can also reduce water pressure, leave soap film and scum lines on tile, and cause poor sudsing of soap and shampoo, resulting in dry, itchy skin and brittle hair.

But the treatment for softening your water may actually be more harmful to your health than the hard water itself. To remove the minerals, many companies use an ion exchange process, replacing the calcium and magnesium with sodium (salt). The problem is that twice the amount of sodium is needed to replace the other ions, and treated water offers a heavy dose of this health buster. To soften your water safely, try an alternative softener, such as the Scaleban, an electronic limestone neutralizer made by EcoSoft Engineering. It softens water electronically without using salt.


EcoSoft Engineering
426 East North Street #28
Waukesha, WI 53188
Tel: (800)275-7070

National Groundwater Association
601 Dempsey Road
Westerville, OH 43081
Tel: (800)551-7379

I have just leased a new 1997 GMC Yukon truck with cloth interior. Ever since the first ride in the vehicle, my throat gets irritated, my tongue has a burning sensation, and I feel as if I am exhaling chemicals. What could be causing this?

Michael Evans, El Segundo, CA

It sounds like you’re having an allergic reaction to some type of chemical used in the interior of the car. Unfortunately, since the interior materials were “outsourced,” GMC was unable to provide us with a list of the specific chemicals used inside the 1997 Yukon.

Mike Drescher, research associate for the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, says that such reactions are often a problem in new cars. “A lot of chemicals are used as insulators and sealants,” he says. “After you buy the car, these chemicals release gases.” This outgassing produces what is commonly known as “new car smell.”

Liz Noblott of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there have been no known complaints about interior chemicals of the GMC Yukon. To report your condition, call the Auto Safety Hotline at 1-800-424-9393.

Another suggestion would be to call a doctor. Christy Miller of the EPA’s Indoor Environmental Organization suggests that Evans could be experiencing an individual physiological response. “Every individual has different reactions to different chemicals,” she says.

The car’s interior may not be to blame. Chemically sensitive people may be affected by exhaust buildup inside the car, according to Living Healthy in a Toxic World, by David Steinman and R. Michael Wisher. The effects of these possible eye, skin and lung irritants can be reduced by rolling down windows, using a car air filter and timing commutes during off-traffic hours.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Office of Public and Consumer Affairs
400 7th Street SW, Room 5232
Washington, DC 20590
Tel: (202)366-5962

Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes
PO Box 6806
Falls Church, VA 22040