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Are We Wasting Our Waste?
When you think of “waste” what do you think of? Trash day? Setting the trash bin on the curb once a week? Or have you thought about what happens to the waste created from your home after it leaves the curb?
For years, decades even, it seems our society has had a very “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about waste—you do your due diligence to keep your neighborhood clean, you pick up litter in the park, you wouldn’t dream of throwing a Styrofoam cup out the window on the high way. On the surface the “waste issue” doesn’t seem like an issue at all—it seems well contained, old news even. Dig a little deeper, however, and some truths start to materialize…
A (EPA) studied American consumer trends over a 30 year time span and revealed that in 2013 Americans generated 341 million tons of waste, recycling on average 34.3 percent of this material. This means that 87 million tons of material went to recycling facilities—a definite positive!—however this also means that the remaining 254 million tons of waste headed into landfills, was incinerated or simply discarded into our environment.
While landfills give residents and homeowners immediate gratification of being an easy waste solution, they have negative, long-term effects that really make you think twice about using them. are the first cause for concern; As the organic materials in a landfill decompose they release gases depending on the materials in the landfill, the age of the landfill and the humidity and temperature. Some of these gases can include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide which are both known to cause health issues, as well as methane and carbon dioxide which displace oxygen and can cause serious health issues due to the lack of oxygen. It is also important to note that landfill gas can migrate when not ventilated properly, entering the soil in nearby communities and potentially homes as well. Additionally, leachate, which is the product that forms when waste breaks down and water filters through it, also forms in landfills. causing serious environmental issues. When it comes down to it, reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills is an all around win-win.
Now, you may be thinking “254 million tons of waste sounds like a lot…but what does that really mean?” I definitely had that thought; talking about millions of tons of waste, or anything for that matter, is honestly incomprehensible for most people. Even just one million tons of something sounds outrageous. Luckily, the EPA also measured statistics on a per capita basis—the average American produces a whopping 5.91 pounds of waste daily!! Only 1.51 pounds of that daily waste is recycled, which still means that on average . You may be thinking “there is no way I throw that much out daily!!” Unfortunately though, those statistics are true! Garbage trucks are restricted in how much they can haul based on overall weight, thus records on the amount of garbage collected are actually very easy for waste management centers to track.
Now I know I personally have days where I don’t seem to throw anything out, and 4.40 pounds per day, or almost 31 pounds of garbage headed to a landfill weekly, seems really high at first glance. That being said, I think it’s beneficial to look at this on a weekly basis to really understand how I, or any average Jane, could actually generate that much trash:
I try and meal prep once a week. So once a week I end up with eggshells, Styrofoam chicken trays, plastic produce bags, empty sauce containers, all the seeds from the center of a squash or a bell pepper. Then there are also the daily items that get chucked: all the banana and orange peels, the plastic bags with wax paper from the deli, and yogurt tubs. While I try to minimize the amount of packaging by buying larger portions or in bulk, and I recycle any materials my recycling center will accept, I’m also human! So yes, I go out for dinner, I get carry-out if I’m feeling lazy, I splurge and buy new nail polish. And this means I end up with a doggie bag of left-overs (the container quickly landing in my trash bin), a take-out container and lots of little sauce packets (which I eventually throw out as well), and additions to my well-loved, but all half-used, beauty product collection (that will likely reach expiration before I use them all up). And when I look at it like that, in an amount of time that encompasses 95% of my regular activities, it starts to make sense how one person can create so much waste.
Even though managing so much waste daily or weekly may seem like a daunting task, there is a tiny, but strong, light at the end of this tunnel. Municipal solid waste aside, the average American has actually shown a strong, steady increase in recycling habits—from recycling only 28.5% of waste in 2000 to 34.3% in 2013. And to add to that, the seemingly unstoppable march towards more and more garbage is actually reversing! The average American actually throws away 2.6% less than they did in the early 2000’s. This may seem like a minor detail but 2.6 percent of 254 million tons is still 6.6 million tons of waste!! Having people change their habits and mindsets can take time. Change is always hard regardless of the topic, but I’m hopeful that we will see some big shifts in the arenas of recycling and waste management soon to complement the changes we are seeing on an individual level.
Additionally, , though we currently only recycle about a third of it. There are two sides to every coin, but we are going to look on the bright side here—America’s +20,000 open landfills are ripe for recycling! Simply knowing that three quarters of everything that is thrown in the garbage can be recycled is a reason in itself to change the way we view what we do on trash day. We now know the impacts of waste, we are now aware of how much waste we are each generating, and with that we can take steps to impact our environment and our future.
Check out these articles for more waste-free ideas:
The Zero Waste Life Ideas
Reusable Produce and Shopping Bag Ideas
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