Besides what you throw away personally, everything you buy represents a lot of trash before it gets to the store shelves.
We say we throw stuff away, but where’s away? Out of the house. Out of town perhaps, but not out of this world. It’s all right here somewhere.
Too much of it ends up as litter. Proper waste disposal means most of it goes to the landfill. Some towns are returning to the old practice of building incinerators. Of course, some trash gets recycled. All of these practices have undesirable environmental consequences.
The trouble with littering
Surely no one approves of waste disposal by littering, but too many of us often find it more convenient to dump something than carry it to a trash can. Litter is an eyesore. It destroys the beauty of scenery, people’s yards, or just the side of the road.
Litter harms wildlife. A hungry animal may get its head stuck in a plastic jar. Or cut itself on the ragged edges of a tin can. It may eat bits of trash. If birds eat plastic, they don’t eliminate it. Eventually it fills their stomach so there’s no room for food. They starve.
Light-weight trash will eventually make it to a waterway. The mightiest river starts out as a tiny stream somewhere. The water will flow over rocks and past roots and tree branches. A few plastic bags stuck in the way of the stream makes a flooding hazard in heavy rain. How many people’s houses suffer flood damage from a creek that could have handles the water if not blocked by trash?
From the waterway it eventually goes into the ocean. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It stretches for hundreds of miles. It’s not the only ocean garbage patch, just the largest.
The junk doesn’t stay close enough together that it’s feasible to gather it up. Many of the pieces are too small to get caught in a net, anyway. But instead of being a hazard to land animals and birds, it disrupts marine life.
The trouble with landfills
The modern sanitary landfill is a descendant of very unsanitary dumps. There used to be thousands of dumps, which bred germs and smelled vile.
They have been replaced by much larger and more efficient landfills.
A landfill at best is like a mad chemistry experiment to find out what happens to a mixture of random and often toxic chemicals.
Rain water would dissolve all of this mess in the old dumps. Nasty stuff would leach out into nearby streams or the ground water. Now we have leachate collection systems.
Landfills also produce methane. It’s a potent greenhouse gas. It’s also a fire and explosion hazard. Natural gas is methane. In principle, we could capture it and use it. In practice, it’s just flared off. Burning it wastes it, but at least it’s less environmentally harmful than just letting it escape into the atmosphere.
What with all the liners and requirements that the day’s trash get covered with dirt, nothing decomposes at a normal rate any more. If it decomposed, it would eventually take less space. Space is a big problem. Landfills eventually fill up. We’re running out of places geographically suitable to build new ones. And geographically suitable for waste disposal doesn’t mean apolitically acceptable.
The trouble with incinerators (waste to energy)
Cities have tried on and off for more than a century to burn trash.
The vogue for waste disposal incinerators has never lasted long.
They’re expensive to build, difficult to maintain, and have a short life span.
The process of burning anything produces produces gasses, ash, and small particulate matter, all toxic. The current generation of incinerators is much more efficient than earlier ones when it comes to keeping harmful gasses out of the atmosphere.
The ash, like coal ash, contains heavy metals that are dangerous in large concentrations. I would hope that the trash incineration industry is learning from the coal industry’s experience with ash. Alas, humans as a species don’t seem very good at learning lessons.
Particulate matter is not subject to environmental regulation yet. We still haven’t discovered adequate filters for it.
A lot of our trash is potentially valuable and ought to be recycled. Maybe some day it will become economically feasible to mine old landfills to recover it. In incinerators, though, it literally goes up in smoke.
Finding a place to build an incinerator is only slightly easier than finding a place for a new landfill. There are no comparable geographic restraints, but no one wants to live near one. People tend to complain—loudly—at proposals to build any new waste treatment facility.
Nowadays, incinerators are used to convert waste to energy. Trash, after all, is an infinitely renewable resource that we’ll never run out of. It can potentially become a rival of solar and wind power—which is probably of greatest concern to people involved in those industries. More seriously, it can also discourage people from recycling.
The trouble with recycling
In principle, everything is recyclable. In practice, little actually gets recycled. There are a number of reasons.
Some people are too lazy to separate recyclables—or even take their discards to a trash can.
Recycling programs limit what they accept. The economics of recycling doesn’t add up if no nearby company will buy a particular kind of waste. Commodity prices fluctuate wildly.
When the price for something accepted for recycling is very low, the municipality has some poor choices: sell it at a loss, pay for storage in hopes that the price will go up some time, or send it to the landfill.
Plastic is probably the largest single problem in waste disposal. Some kinds of plastic are not used and discarded enough to make it worth sorting them out and selling them.
The plastic waste with the numbers 1 and 2 in the recycling triangle are the easiest to recycle. If any PVC (no. 3) or PP (no. 5) gets accidentally mixed into a batch of PET (no. 1), the whole batch is ruined and must be landfilled or burned.
When all goes well, and the recycling process goes on as intended, it can still have bad environmental consequences. Making products with waste matter is every bit as much an industrial process as making them from virgin material. All industrial processes cause pollution. Ironically, recycling companies may cause more pollution than others.
The uncomfortable solution
There is no perfect way to deal with waste. Don’t hold your breath waiting for some waste disposal process that has no negative impact on the environment. The best practice for individuals is not to generate waste in the first place.
- Don’t buy more food than you’ll eat before it spoils.
- Compost your banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, and other inedible byproducts of your meals. (Unfortunately, you’d have to buy an expensive composting system in order to add bones and fat to the mix.)
- Take cloth bags into stores to avoid bringing home plastic or paper bags.
- All else being equal, choose the product with the least packaging.
- Don’t buy bottled water.
- Reuse, repurpose, or donate items instead of discarding them.
Trash Trivia / Major Waste Disposal [Link no longer works as of October 2017.]
Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback, Kindling both Garbage and Debate / Timothy Williams (New York Times, January 15, 2015)
Can Recycling be Bad for the Environment? / Amy Westervelt (Forbes, April 25, 2012)
Duck with sixpack rings. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Landfill diagram. Source unknown
Municipal waste in incinerator. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Recycling bales. Some rights reserved by Lisa Yarost