How Earth Works

A sign displays recyclable items at an 'e-waste' drop-off location inside a Staples store.
Tim Boyle/Getty Images

So you've decided to "go green." You've replaced your regular light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs and purchased recycling bins. You've even organized that pile in the garage. You know the one -- outdated audio equipment, used cans of paint, even an old car battery. You're feeling pretty proud of yourself, until you realize, "Hey. How do I get rid of all this stuff?" And no, you can't just put it out with the trash.

That's where Earth 911 comes in. Log onto Earth 911's Web site, type in your zip code and you'll be presented with a list of recycling drop-off centers right in your area.


­Earth 911 consolidates thousands of hotlines, Web sites and other information resources into one North American information network. Its 1-800-CLEANUP hotline provides community-specific environmental information, in both Spanish and English. Earth 911 hosts a list of more than 74,000 recycling centers that offer more than 400,000 recycling services. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency endorses the site. So do Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey [source: Earth 911].

Although its main function is to tell users the easiest way they can recycle everything from a can to a computer, Earth 911 also posts original content and articles. An events calendar lists earth-friendly activities around the United States and Canada. Environmental experts offer advice and tips for living green. Communities can list their own recycling guidelines and events. Once registered on the site, individual users are encouraged to add their own content and feedback. The site also provides materials for teachers and students.

In addition to the information provided on the main Earth 911 site, several sub-sites focus on more specific areas -- clean beaches, clean boating and earth-friendly business operations.

On the next few pages, we'll take a look at Earth 911's beginnings and learn how to navigate the Web site's resources. What can you pull from its bank of data? And how could Earth 911 get you singing about recycling?


Earth 911 History

The late Chris J. Warner created Earth 911 in 1991 as a recycling information Web site for Arizona residents. He combined Internet technology with geographic information systems technology, which was a rather new concept at that time. Before his death in 2007, Warner stated, "The whole mission of these networks is to empower and engage the public to think globally and act locally. We started from scratch and kept on scratching" [source: ESRI].

Earth 911's mission is to deliver information that enables people to actively contribute to sustainability, a concept the United Nations defined in 1987 as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."


Earth 911 calls its operation a public-private partnership. A public-private partnership is an agreement between a public agency (like your state recycling facility) and a private sector agency (like Earth 911) to pool their services or resources for the use of the general public [source: NCPPP]. Earth 911 not only teams up with many public sector entities, including the EPA, but it also teams up with private sector corporations. These corporate sponsorships allow Earth 911 to operate at no cost to the user or taxpayer. Industry organizations and local agencies also support the site [source: Granger]. Earth 911 is non-political and non-activist.

Earth 911 winds up reaching a wide audience largely through the media. Local and national news outlets often call on the organization to provide expert commentary for reports on environmental topics. When you read an article about recycling or environmental concerns, you are likely reading statistics that Earth 911 provided.

Another way Earth 911 reaches out to the public is to ask corporate partners to display the Earth 911 logo and earth-friendly messages (like a message about recycling) on product labels. Earth 911 also works with government and nonprofit agencies to deliver content. All 50 states and Canada use Earth 911 to distribute local information, as well as promote it as a credible source for environmental knowledge. Trade associations also collaborate with Earth 911 to educate their members on best practices and to reach out to the public on green topics.

Now that you know how this organization operates and shouts out its message to the public, read the next page to learn how you can peruse the Web site's contents.


Using Earth 911

Recycling bins are placed on the street to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Earth Day in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Earth 911 Web site content can be broken down like this: recycling information, local information, information for students, interactivity, event calendar and articles. Here's a brief description of each feature:

Recycling Information: To find a recycling center in your area, look for "Find a Recycling Center" at the top of the home page. Plug in what you would like to recycle and your zip code, and it will link you to a list of nearby sites.


Local Information: If you want information for a particular state, click the drop-down menu on the left under the words "Act Locally." This will lead you to articles, events and local environmental organizations in your particular state.

Information for Students: If you click on "for students" under "Think Globally" on the left side of the home page, you can access resources for both students and teachers. For example, teachers can learn how students can create recycled paper as a classroom activity. Students can get information on how to start their own Earth 911 club, complete with downloadable logos. And this section also includes links to national contests for students.

Interactivity: In this day in age, interactivity is important in maintaining a successful Web site with repeat visitors [source: Nielsen]. Earth 911 offers interactivity to users in the form of an email newsletter as well as the opportunity to upload their own ideas and stories. By registering an account with Earth 911, users can comment on articles and even provide their own content, once given appropriate permission. Earth 911 active users include government employees who post local programs, companies that specialize in the disposal of products and environmental writers. Users can also watch video public service announcements on a variety of topics.

Event Calendar: The event calendar on the home page highlights popular upcoming environmental events. At the top of the homepage, you will see the word "search." If you click on the word "event" under "search," it will allow you to search for events by keyword. For example, April 22 is Earth Day, a national holiday that celebrates the importance of the environment and the need to take action. If you search events by keyword "Earth Day," you'll learn about the Free Colusa County Oil Filter Exchange Event, among other events, where residents of the California county are encouraged to recycle their used oil filters.

Articles: You can search for articles by keyword as well. Another way to find articles on different topics is to click on the sitemap at the bottom of the home page. This will link you to a page that lists different topic areas. Click on a topic and you will find articles that cover it.

Government and Public Sector Agency Resources: The writer found this information difficult to access from the home page. The easiest way to get there is to plug into your browser. Here you'll find trend-tracking reports on environmental issues.

"Think Globally, Act Locally" is a term you hear often. Earth 911 offers advice on how to do both, and in the next section, you'll learn how Earth 911 helps users to think globally.



Earth 911 -- Thinking Globally

Jay Directo/Stinger/AFP/Getty Images A Greenpeace activist shows electronic waste during a press conference in Manila.

If you look at the "Think Globally" section on the left side of the Earth 911 home page, you'll find a list of topics that will get you thinking about how you and your habits affect the globe. Listed under this section are a number of key environmental issues you can examine.

For example, you'll find recycling listed here. An ever-increasing trend, currently the United States recycles over 32 percent of its waste, and the amount of waste that is recycled has doubled just within the past 15 years [source: EPA]. San Francisco boasts a citywide recycling rate of 69 percent [source: San Franciso Office of the Mayor]. Earth 911 provides information on what items are recyclable, and some of them may surprise you, like that old audio equipment or those cans of paint. The Web site's recycling section provides information on how to recycle, why to recycle and what to recycle. Other recycling topics include the following:


  • Curbside recycling is one of the best ways to encourage citizens to recycle. A study in Kansas City, Mo. showed that residents are more likely to recycle if given access to bins and increased curbside pickups [source: Recycling Today]. Earth 911 also maintains a partner site called Recycle Curbside.
  • E-waste (or electronic waste) is a relatively new term used to describe the old computers and cell phones that sit around collecting dust. Electronics account for 40 percent of the lead found in landfills nationwide [source: Eligon]. Earth 911 provides ideas for reuse as well as a list of manufacturers who will take back your e-waste.
  • Hazardous household waste (HHW) is any leftover household product that contains potentially hazardous ingredients. Paint, motor oils, batteries and pesticides are a few examples of HHW [source: EPA]. Earth 911 shows users how to properly dispose of such products.

Product stewardship is the practice of considering the entire lifecycle of a product. As the term implies, it means becoming a steward, or representative, for a product, and taking responsibility for its effect on the environment. Manufacturers are urged to take into account the environmental impact of their products -- from design to production to use to recycle -- and begin taking steps toward making their products eco-friendly and sustainable [source: Product Stewardship Institute].

For consumers, product stewardship is about making responsible decisions with their shopping dollar. Earth 911's product stewardship section lists examples of products manufactured by companies that display good product stewardship. For example, you might remember that in the 1970s and 1980s, McDonald's packaged its fast-food in Styrofoam containers. Styrofoam clogs up landfills and does not biodegrade. In 1990, McDonald's made the decision to switch from the plastic foam packaging to more earth-friendly paper packaging [source: Holusha]. This action is an example of product stewardship. Product stewardship also comes into play when you shop green.

Green shopping is ensuring the materials and goods you purchase have a low (or lower) environmental impact. Some consider this philosophy controversial; critics complain that the focus is on consumption rather than reduction [source: Williams]. Earth 911 supports green shopping in conjunction with other actions. Its green shopping section provides information about eco-friendly shopping, pointing out the many ways consumer dollars can make a positive environmental impact. The site recommends buying in bulk, in recyclable/reusable containers and choosing long-lasting items (for example, a "real" camera instead of a disposable).

Another way to reduce your household's contribution to landfills is through composting. The food scraps and yard trimmings we throw away each year contribute to 24 percent of the United States' solid waste stream [source: EPA]. Instead of sending it to a landfill, we can use that waste in the garden. The Earth 911 Web site provides information on mulching, tools for composting and common myths about composting.

The "Think Globally" section of Earth 911 also houses a directory of environmental topics, which provides information on everything from climate change to water conservation. All of these topics tie into the concepts of recycling and product stewardship, which is even more proof of how our daily choices affect the environment on a global level.

Now that you know how to act globally, let's learn how Earth 911 promotes acting locally.


Earth 911 -- Acting Locally

Thinking globally means making environmental decisions while keeping the planet at large in mind. Acting locally means putting those decisions to work in your own backyard.

As you try to "go green," you may meet with challenges. For example, those compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are great energy savers, but what happens when you need to throw one away? CFLs contain a small amount of mercury and must be disposed of properly [source: Daley].


Guidelines for disposal and general recycling differ by state, county and town. Earth 911 provides localized information so users can find out how their communities handle recycling. As we mentioned earlier, the Earth 911 home page features a search box where users can enter the name of the item they wish to recycle, along with their zip code or city. Earth 911 then provides a list of local recycling centers, along with guidelines, phone numbers and maps.

Example: A homeowner in New Jersey has a collection of dead batteries she needs to dispose of. Instead of tossing them into her household trash, she visits the Earth 911 Web site and types the word "batteries," along with her zip code into the search box. A page comes up with a list of nearby recycling centers, as well as a RadioShack that recycles batteries only two miles away. Clicking the RadioShack link brings up a map, operating hours and details on exactly what types of batteries are accepted at this commercial location. In this case, the store accepts both chargeable and rechargeable batteries.

Since it's not always possible or convenient to get Internet access, Earth 911 also offers a phone number -- 1-800-CLEANUP. This hotline provides local recycling information through a touch-tone telephone and offers this content in both English and Spanish.

When you search by state, it links you to state- or province- specific environmental resources. For example, the Georgia page on Earth 911 features links such as Keep Georgia Beautiful, Littering and Illegal Dumping in Georgia and Consumer Information. Clicking through these links will bring even more information and resources.

Earth 911 also hosts several subsites. How can these sites help you think globally on your next vacation to the beach? We'll explore the answer to that question on the next page.


Earth 911's Other Causes

Workers try to clean up an oil spill at the Bens beach, near Coruna, in northwestern Spain.
AFP/Getty Images

In addition to the main Web site, Earth 911 also hosts information for more narrow audiences.

Earth 911 Business serves up the same type of information posted at the main Earth 911 site, except tailored for businesses. It provides information on the following:


  • Business-specific recycling guidelines (toner, fluorescent bulbs, landscaping waste)
  • Local, national and industry resources
  • Waste exchange information (transferring waste to another company so that it may be used again in a different process)
  • Tips on waste reduction (double-sided copies, reducing packaging)
  • How to conduct a waste assessment
  • Federal and state waste requirements
  • Recycling and disposal information
  • Green purchasing and environmentally preferred product list
  • As with the main site, regional recycling coordinators can upload content to the site for location-specific information.

Beaches 911 is dedicated to monitoring water quality at U.S. beaches. In 2006, water pollution resulted in more than 25,000 beach and lake closings [source: NRDC]. Users access the site, click on a state's name and view the beach water status of their favorite locations. For participating regions, each beach on the map is marked with a color-coded pin. Green means the water quality is acceptable, yellow means the beach is under advisory and red means the beach is closed. As with the rest of the Earth 911 content, the content on Beaches 911 is community-supplied. In addition to the water quality status reports, Beaches 911 features articles on beach safety, keeping beaches clean and water conservation. Users can also sign up for e-mail alerts about the water quality status of their favorite beaches.

Clean Boating offers environmental guidelines for boaters. This site is limited to the state of California but does offer some general guidelines for clean boating. Information offered includes:

  • Boating-related waste recycling and disposal locations (California only)
  • Tips for clean boating
  • Proper waste disposal and responsible equipment maintenance
  • Useful clean boating links (national and regional)

Now that you've learned how Earth 911 works, perhaps you'd like to learn more on the topic of being green. Read the links on the next page for more information on keeping our environment healthy.  


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "About Our Company." 2008. (March 24, 2008)
  • Center for a World in Balance. "Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development." August 4, 1987. (March 24, 2008)
  • Chris J. Warner. "Advisor." 2006. (March 18, 2008)
  • Daley, Beth. "Mercury leaks found as new bulbs break." The Boston Globe. February 26, 2008. (March 18, 2008)
  • Donn, Jeff; Mendoza, Martha and Pritchard, Justin. "AP Probe Finds Drugs in Drinking Water." Newsweek. March 10, 2008. (March 18, 2008)
  • Earth 911.
  • Eligon, John. "Engineering a Tough Switch: Getting New Yorkers to Recycle Electronics." The New York Times. March 10, 2008. (March 18, 2008)
  • ESRI. " Mission to Help the Environment Results in Helping Endangered Children." 2005. (March 24, 2008)
  • Global Alerts
  • Granger, Trey. Earth Responded to emailed questions. March 11, 2008.
  • Holusha, John. "A Setback for Polystyrene." New York Times. November 18, 1990. (March 24, 2008)
  • Natural Resources Defense Council. "Testing the Waters 2007." 2007. (March 18, 2008) 
  • Nielsen, Jakob. "Loyalty on the Web." August 1, 1997. (March 18, 2008)
  • Recycling Today. "Survey Reveals Barriers to Curbside Recycling Participation Among Urban Residents." September 8, 2005. (March 18, 2008)
  • United States EPA. "Composting."2008. (March 18, 2008)
  • United States EPA. "Household Hazardous Waste.", 2008. (March 18, 2008)
  • United States EPA. "Recycling Facts and Figures." January 14, 2008. (March 24, 2008)\
  • Williams, Alex. "Buying Into the Green Movement." New York Times. July 1, 2007. (March 18, 2008)