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Making a change
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Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series exploring climate change, its effects and its possible solutions. Friday's edition of the News will feature part three of the series featuring solutions to the problem.

Be honest, have you ever wondered where that drink container you threw away this morning goes after you toss it in the nearest trash bin?

Have you ever thought about the life of that plastic bottle? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the plastic bottle has origins tied to natural resources and a final resting place that has a negative effect on the environment?

A plastic drink bottle is made out of thermoplastic, a polymer created when petroleum - a non-renewable resource - and other products are heated and broken down into smaller molecules.

In a thermoplastic, such as your drink bottle, the molecules are held together by weak bonds and can easily be molded into whatever shape the beverage company desires. The empty plastic bottle is then shipped to the bottling company in some form of transportation (be it ship, airplane, train or 18-wheeler) that consumes a petroleum based fuel.

The beverage-filled bottle is then shipped in another petroleum-consuming vehicle to the store from where you purchased it.

After you consumed the beverage and tossed the empty container into the trash, you took that bag of trash to the road for collection. The plastic bottle then took its final ride in a gas-guzzling garbage truck to the local landfill.

In the landfill, the plastic bottle will sit for centuries, unable to decay because the same characteristics making it the perfect container also makes it the environment's worst enemy - it is virtually indestructible.

In 2006, plastics accounted for 11.7 percent of all municipal solid waste created in the United States, which roughly equates to 14 million tons of plastics in American landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Comparatively, EPA reports say plastics accounted for less than 1 percent of the total amount of solid waste in 1960.

Newton County residents produce, according to the Multi-Jurisdictional Solid Waste Management Plan, an average of 5.29 pounds of trash per day - nearly one pound more than the average American.

 That number includes plastics, and if the Newton County average holds true to the national, each resident, on average, throws away nearly 225 pounds of plastic each year.

 The nearly 100,000 residents of Newton County will contribute an estimated 22.5 million pounds of plastic waste each year.

 That plastic will sit in the landfills beyond the life of your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

Are you leaving a legacy of trash and when do we run out of landfill space to hold all of that trash?

So what's the answer?

The root of the problem is as multifaceted as the uses of plastic itself with the answers just as numerous.

A culture of consumption in the Unites States may be at the heart of the problem of waste, but can a cultural norm be reversed and a new norm established in this country?

According to Oxford College Anthropology Professor Dr. Valerie Singer, the American culture has changed in many positive ways over the decades, but it has also deteriorated.

"When I was younger it was common for my parents to carpool to work," Singer said. "But now you see very few people doing that."

According to Singer, though the American consumption rates are significantly higher than other first-world nations like those in Western Europe and Japan where the quality of life is just as high as in the United States, Americans are hesitant to change their way of life.

"From a cultural perspective, one thing we don't have that we should is a sense of community," Singer said. "We don't think of how our personal activities can affect the community around us.

"That is a cultural shift that needs to happen."

Making the cultural paradigm shift in American homes - by making changes in homes that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also change the expectations of Americans - can cause a change in policy making; therefore, having a greater impact on global climate change.

According to Singer, some old-fashioned cultural values could benefit the environmental cause in the United States.

"We don't share the same way we used to," Singer said. "Not just rides to work, but resources. Like why does everyone on a street have to own a riding lawnmower instead of sharing one with the block."

Singer said sharing can be a way to reduce consumption, but our current cultural norms suggest otherwise.

"It has become a cultural value to have a lot of stuff," Singer added. "Like the bumper sticker that says, 'Whoever dies with the most toys wins,' that's really a sad way to look at life."

Singer also suggests that the American culture of consumption also makes it difficult to buck the system even for those who typically are not major consumers.

So where does the cultural shift begin?

 Some suggest at home.

Starting at home

The EPA suggests making small changes at home not only reduces a household's carbon footprint but also saves money on energy costs. According to the EPA, nine steps can be taken to lessen each household's impact on the environment.

The steps include replacing the five most used conventional light bulbs in a home with compact fluorescent (CFLs) bulbs, which use about 25 percent less energy that the conventional bulb.

According to David Gershon's carbon reducing program, "Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds," where lights are on at least four hours a day, 100 pounds of carbon dioxide will be saved annually per bulb.

Oxford College Biology Professor Theodosia Wade suggested starting with a light bulb change at home as the simplest way to get the ball rolling.

"You can actually look at your electric bill and see how much money you saved," Wade said. "A lot of people really want to make a difference and that's something that everyone can do. You don't have to be a climatologist or work for a big oil company to make a difference."

Wade said she continues to look for ways to cut energy consumption in her home. She said she recently began hanging as much laundry up in her laundry room as possible to decrease the number of dryer loads.

"For someone else, it might be that they try to buy more local organic produce," Wade said. "I've tried not to buy bananas because they come from South America and it takes a lot of natural resources to get them to the grocery store, but blueberries come from Florida and Chile so I only try to buy them when they come from Florida."

Wade said changes at home definitely have a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but key policy changes are needed at the governmental level to see even more widespread change.

She alluded to a court case in which the state of Massachusetts, along with several other states, sued the EPA because of the agency's failure to monitor carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere despite monitoring other greenhouse gases.

Wade said the states won the court case, which is a landmark case for environmentalists, who have called for governmental monitoring of carbon dioxide levels.

"I'm very hopeful," Wade said in an earlier interview about action being taken to control climate change. "The reason is because I think a lot of people are concerned about this.

 "Most people that I encounter have some concern about the environment in which they live and the students we see coming through the colleges are extremely concerned about it."

Reducing an individual's carbon footprint for the future will require residents to reduce, reuse and recycle - not just as a moniker but as an everyday lifestyle.

That same plastic beverage bottle that can sit in the local landfill for centuries can find a new life in a recycling center.

Instead of tossing the empty bottle into a regular trash bin, pitch it into a recycling bin. The recycling bin is set out on the curb for collection by the recycling company and sent to a recovery facility where the plastic is sorted by type of plastic then baled and sent to a reclaimer.

According to the EPA Web site, once the plastic arrives at the reclaiming center it is washed and ground into small flakes that are dried, melted, filtered and formed into pellets. The pellets are shipped to product manufacturing plants and made into new plastic products.

A new life for a bottle you were just going to throw away.

 Instead of centuries of filling a landfill, a recycled bottle can play a role in the betterment of the lives of your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.