Humans produce a lot of solid waste—1.3 billion tons per year, to be exact. The U.S., which is only 5% of the world’s population, generates 258 million tons of municipal solid waste every year (between 17 and 20% of the world’s waste).
Solid waste impacts the environment, human health, and the economy. It is an all-encompassing matter that plays a major role in society; but in modern times is largely ignored by the public because its affects are so displaced from us. Throwing something away, to us, means never having to see or think about it again. But, as activist Annie Leonard once said, “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”
Most municipal solid waste in the United States is landfilled – i.e. sent to a disposal site where it is buried. Modern landfills are more than big pits full of garbage; instead, they are carefully engineered facilities designed with various safety controls to prevent pollutants from entering the ecosystem. One of the major pollutants that comes from landfills is leachate, a highly toxic liquid that forms when precipitation mixes with waste. Leachate is highly concentrated with numerous chemicals from the breaking down materials, and, if not properly managed, can seep into surrounding land and groundwater, posing an environmental and health hazard. While landfills are lined to prevent leachate from entering the ecosystem, liners can crack and degrade over time; and all landfills will leak eventually.
Another issue with landfills is methane – a greenhouse gas 28-36 times more potent than carbon dioxide – which forms when organic materials (such as food waste, leaf and yard debris, paper products, wood and lumber, etc.) break down without access to oxygen. Landfills are the third largest emitter of human-related methane in the U.S., and even though most landfills have gas capturing systems, no landfill is able to capture 100% of the methane it produces. Depending on the regulatory and management practices employed at a given site, methane gas capture at landfills over time ranges between 60 and 90% efficiency. This indicates that even the best and most controlled landfill sites still contribute to climate change.
Although landfills are the waste management strategy of choice in the United States, unmanaged dump sites are still prevalent worldwide, particularly in impoverished areas. Garbage dumps differ from landfills in that they do not utilize any of the safety measures employed by landfills. Dumps are not lined or capped, and do not prevent methane or leachate from entering the environment. This causes major pollution issues, and can result in carcinogen and other toxic chemical exposure in humans residing nearby. Surprisingly, the world's largest garbage dump is not on land - it is in the ocean, which poses major health and environmental impacts of its own.
Litter, mismanaged wastes, and trash dumped illegally are carried via wind or waterways to the ocean. It is estimated that 80% of ocean debris comes from trash disposed of on land (as opposed to boaters, oil rigs, and cargo ships accidentally or purposefully dumping into the ocean). Some studies indicate that millions of tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. However, the exact amount of refuse in the ocean is unmeasurable due to photodegradation of plastics, and the fact that the majority of marine debris (an estimated 70%) sinks to the bottom of the ocean and is thus not readily observable. Plastics and other garbage in the ocean have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems, biodiversity, human health, the fishing industry, and more. Read more about the impacts of ocean debris here.
According to the U.S. EPA, between 11 and 12% of municipal solid waste in the United States is incinerated. Incinerators are one of the most expensive management strategies for municipal solid waste. Incinerators also cause concerns regarding air quality, pollution, toxic ash, and human health. Read more about incinerators and human health here, or click here to read about the health impacts associated with all forms of waste management.
The final potential option for waste is recovery through recycling. According to the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the recycling rate in Vermont is about 35%, even though over 60% of Vermont’s municipal solid waste is recyclable/compostable. Recycling is much better than the above options: it saves energy, resources, and landfill space. However, recycling is not the cure-all solution. Production and excessive consumption pose far greater environmental, social, and health risks than the residential waste, itself. Platt & Seldman (2000) stated, “For every ton of municipal discards wasted, about 71 tons of manufacturing, mining, oil and gas exploration, agricultural, coal combustion, and other discards are produced.” Thus, the vast majority of waste produced throughout an item’s lifecycle is generated before the object even reaches the consumer’s hands.
Tossing said item in the recycling bin, as opposed to the garbage, does allow the product to be made into something new; thus reducing the emissions and waste that would have been generated if that new product had been made out of virgin materials. However, using and recycling single-use items day after day does not do anything to address the energy, emissions, and waste associated with the production of these single-use items in the first place. Additionally, the recycling process also requires energy, and can generate pollution and waste byproducts of its own.
Not all recycling is truly closed-loop, either; Annie Leonard, in The Story of Stuff, wrote,
“[Recycling] often isn’t even recycling but is actually something called downcycling. True recycling achieves a circular closed loop production process (a bottle into a bottle into a bottle), while downcycling just makes Stuff into a lower-grade material and a secondary product (a plastic jug into carpet backing). At best, downcycling reduces the need for virgin ingredients for the secondary item, but it never reduces the resources needed to make a replacement for the original item.”
There is still merit to reducing extraction of virgin materials, and some recycling really is closed-loop (such as aluminum), so recycling is inarguably better than landfilling. However, recycling (as it occurs today) is far from perfect; there are far more environmentally and socially responsible ways to reduce waste.
Of the Three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), there is a reason “reduce” and “reuse” come before recycle. Reducing overall consumption and opting for durable, reusable items rather than single-use disposables will have significantly better environmental impacts than simply doing our best to recycle.
A good way to start is to take notice of the waste you are producing. Once you become aware of the types of trash you are generating, it is easier to identify effective ways to reduce and find durable alternatives. For nearly every disposable item on the market, there are sustainable and/or reusable alternatives (i.e. reusable straws, metal razors, reusable food wrap, cloth produce bags, etc.). There are many resources online, such as this article on product and lifestyle swaps, to give you ideas on creative and impactful ways to reduce and reuse. Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Reducing Waste for some easy waste reduction tips, check out our article on Simple Zero Waste Swaps, and feel free to give us a call at 388-2333 if you would like more information and pointers on how you can reduce your waste!