What’s in Your Garbage?

Most of us don’t like to dwell on the topic of garbage – it’s messy, often stinky, and we want out of our homes as fast as humanly possible. 

The garbage is a place we tend to put all kinds of things we don’t know what to do with, and things we’re unaware should be put elsewhere.  Perhaps the reason we don’t know the answers to many “trashy” questions is because we’d just rather avoid the topic.

Where do we put all of this stuff?

Waste has likely been a problem since humans began roaming the Earth.  After all, it bows to the most basic tenant of science – matter cannot be created or destroyed – just modified.  As it piled up around us, we noticed a few things. One, its almost always ugly.  Two, it almost never smells good.  And three, everyone seemed to be getting sick from it.

We tried burning it – sometimes we even still do. (Those of you living in the city and suburbs who think everyone puts a can at the curb, think again.  There are rural areas where the right to burn trash ranks up there with the right to own property.)  But burning has its own set of problems, not the least of which is toxic air. And of course, the boredom of watching stuff burn has lead to a few fires over time.

Someone then got the idea to bury the stuff in a big hole – probably someone watching another someone heave a refrigerator into a remote ravine full of Maytags, Kennmores and Amanas. The big hole was a good idea – put the stuff in, cover it up, never worry about it again.

Until we learned about things like leachate, the liquid that results from decaying garbage and finds its way into our streams, creeks and waterways, and methane, that greenhouse gas byproduct of decaying organic matter, which we now know contributes to climate change. Many primitive, unlined landfills have been deemed toxic sites, were cleaned up, or are now in the process of being cleaned up.

The Modern Landfill

Today’s landfills may not look it, but are engineering marvels, lined, either with clay or plastic liners, to isolate trash as much as possible. Liners are also meant to kept trash dry and limit air contact – that, in turn, slows decomposition of trash – you’ve likely heard stories about excavated 30 year-old newspapers that look like they came from the corner news stand. 

Generally speaking, many factors, quite a few related to groundwater and geology, must be considered during the landfill siting and proposal process (check out http://science.howstuffworks.com/landfill4.htm for details).  Aside from liners, landfills are composed of a series of cells, which, as they are filled, are compressed with heavy equipment to conserve space, and closed off with a cover of soil, usually about six inches.  Additionally, landfills contain drainage and collection systems for storm water and leachate, and in some more progressive designs, methane recovery systems allow collected gas to be used for energy. 

Landfills are not designed for quick decomposition – in fact, even after they are closed, most must be monitored for years to detect possible environmental impacts.  Even organic material and biodegradable items break down slowly in these low-moisture, low-oxygen burial chambers.  But that doesn’t mean the “biodegradable” moniker is just greenwash.  Some trash inevitably ends up floating around in the world, outside of landfills, be it from our own carelessness, escape from trash trucks, whatever.  Better it break down quickly than collect vectors, mosquitoes and the like.

There are some that would have us believe that the “landfill space shortage” crisis is an exaggeration created by activists.  After all, in the great big US of A, there is plenty of ground left for us to bury our trash in.  Perhaps. More likely, these folks have never been to a community meeting for a landfill siting or expansion permit.  Regardless of the wonders of modern engineering, landfills will likely always bring odor, blowing trash, unwanted animal life, and increased truck traffic, among other potential nuisances. 

There’s always the argument that we put our trash in places where no one lives anyway – ala Yucca Mountain.  But, regardless of population, what state or states would volunteer to be the country’s garbage can?  Anyone who remembers that famous New York trash barge floating up and down the East Coast looking for a landfill that would take its cargo knows the answer.

Amazon.com Widgets

Rethink your trash.

So, what’s a large country of consumers – Americans generate about four times more trash per person than the citizens of any other country – to do?  Here are a few ideas:

Compost organics: Get a countertop compost pail (around $25 at Amazon.com) and start saving organics.  Most pails come with odor-killing filters, so have no fear of keeping them in the house.  Then, either purchase an out door compost bin, or build your own. Details on keeping compost are available all over the Web. 

According to Mike Forbeck, of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, composting is one of the best ways to limit the amount of waste going to landfills.  “New products like cups and bottles made of cornstarch polymer can be composted along with leaves and yard wastes to produce richer soils,” Forbeck said.  “Some major venues are converting to these products, like PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.”

Precycle: When you purchase products, look for those that use the least amount of packaging, or use packaging made from recycled materials.  In the grocery store, look for cereals, snacks, beverages, and frozen foods in boxes made of recycled material.  Buy in bulk – for instance, two liter bottles of soda instead of individual serving bottles or bundles of aluminum cans.  Avoid convenience packaging when possible.  “Reduce first,” Forbeck says.  “Be a smart shopper.  Buy recycled products, or those that use less packaging.”

Purchasing items that use packing made with recycled content can actually save energy, too.  According to Forbeck, in glass plants, it takes less energy to make new glass from recycled than from virgin resources.  Making aluminum cans from recycled cans can use as little as 5 percent of the energy it takes to make a new can.

BYOB: Bring your own bags. If you attend conferences and workshops, save those canvas bags they give you to tote around all of your paperwork, and toss them in your trunk. Dig out that L.L. Bean Boat ‘n Tote from your last beach adventure.  Make a commitment to use them at the grocery store, discount stores, department stores, the farmers market – wherever someone is likely to load your purchases in a plastic or paper bag. Some grocers offer a small discount to customers who bring their own bags – in the neighborhood of five or ten cents per bag. Even Macy’s is promoting this practice.

Buy only what you need and use what you buy: Families often stock their refrigerators only to find it full of rotten or expired food after a busy week of evening activities and late nights at the office.  Try to plan ahead as much as possible – anticipate how many meals you’ll be eating at home as a family, how many lunches need packing, etc.  Buy what you need until you can make another trip to the store.  Store things properly – tomatoes keep longer on the counter, other fruits and vegetables do better in the fridge crisper.  If you have questions, ask your grocer.

Recycle:  The golden rule of environmentalists.  Follow the directions provided by your collector and make sure your recycling center or facility follows proper practices. “One of the most common misconceptions among the public is that their recyclables are always handled properly,” Forbeck said.

Go beyond plastic bottles and aluminum cans.  Recycle plastic containers from single servings of fruit, yogurt, and pudding, as well as plastic containers from health and beauty products and household cleaners.  Check in with your recycling center or collector to find out which plastics they accept (that little number in the triangle on the bottom of most packaging) – most take numbers one and two, some take others.  If your recycler does not, ask where you can take numbers like 5, 6, and 7.  Find out if your recycler takes corrugated cardboard – if they don’t, it’s likely someone in your community does.  Look for neighborhood bins for phone books, newspapers and magazines, often located at malls and shopping centers. 

According to Forbeck, recycling can play a key role in saving energy, as well as landfill space. “Every pound of steel recycled saves 5,450 BTUs of energy, enough to light a 60-watt bulb for over 26 hours,” he said.  “Recycling a ton of glass saves the equivalent of nine gallons of fuel oil. Recycling just one can saves enough electricity to light a 100-watt bulb for 3½ hours.”

Cut back on paper use: Contrary to conventional wisdom, paper takes up the most space in landfills, not soiled diapers or plastic bottles (read more about what’s really in our landfills in Rubbish!: The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project).

But don’t stop at that catalog cancellation site (junkmailstoppers.com; catalongstoppers.com, catalogend.com).  Make it a practice not to sign up for mailing lists.  If you really want information from a vendor, give your e-mail address instead.  Consider buying only from retailers who use sustainable practices for their mailings – like sustainable forestry paper, or post-consumer recycled paper.  Don’t sign up or drop your business card into bins for product drawings or sweepstakes – this is a classic marketing tool for gathering names and growing mailing lists. Always print double-sided, or give paper printed on one side to children for art projects (some elementary schools collect this kind of paper for this purpose). Shred newspaper and use it for pet bedding, or offer it to local farmers for livestock beds.

Use Your Head:  Don’t put things in the trash that don’t belong there.  Solvents, oil-based paints, motor oil, wood stains, tires, pesticides, herbicides, etc. should all be saved for a local household hazardous waste collection event.  Call your municipality to find out if an event is planned (they often happen in the spring and summer when people are spending time in their garages and sheds).  If not, ask that one be established, or find out if communities with collection days will allow you to participate (costs for these events are high, so they are often closed to residents of sponsoring communities).  Also, if you’ve actually been using compact fluorescent bulbs long enough that they’ve started to burn out, be sure to dispose of them properly. CFLs contain mercury. Visit http://ww.epa.gov/bulbrecycling for tips.

Be creative: Find new ways to reduce and reuse.  Crafters can easily reuse discarded fabrics, clothing and linens, turning them into quilts, dolls, and other saleable items.  If you’re not the hobby-type, consider asking a friend or relative who is if they’re interested in items your considering tossing.  Give clothing you’re no longer using to Good Will, or other local charities.  Many groups collect professional clothing for out of work women to wear to job interviews.  Some charities even collect cars – make sure to get the proper paperwork for a tax write off.  Check out the Freecycle network where people trade useful items within their communities – www.freecycle.org.  Hold and promote a neighborhood garage sale or fleamarket – cottage and country decorating enthusiasts love these events, and often look for new places to “shop.”  Check out Nike’s shoe recycling program.  Collect used and worn out athletic shoes from friends, families, and people in your neighborhood, and send them back to Nike (the brand doesn’t matter).  Nike uses the shoes to make NikeGrind, a special athletic surface used to build safer sports surfaces in lower-income neighborhoods.

Trash will likely always be a problem as long as there are humans – but with some planning and foresight, we can likely minimize the implications of our consumption.  Trash collectors themselves are getting into the act – in some California communities, residents receive three collection bins – one for landfill, one for compost (the trash hauler collects it, cures it, and bags it for sale) and one for recycling.  Those who request smaller landfill bins and bigger compost and recycle bins see discounts on their trash bills.  Consider lobbying your trash company or municipality for a similar program, and look for more ways to limit your landfill contribution.


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