Trash is becoming a larger and larger problem for us and for the environment. As we continue to waste more and more, we use more natural resources and increase pollution in our world.
In most of the world, including North America, we do one of two things with our ordinary garbage: burn it or bury it. Neither one is good for us or for the environment. Burning garbage in incinerators releases dangerous gases and dust (particulate matter) which contribute to global warming and pollute lakes, forests, oceans and cities half a world away from where they originated. Most incinerators in industrialized countries now remove large quantities of particles and pollutants, thus ensuring cleaner air. But the bulk of what they remove ends up in a landfill.
Burying garbage also causes both air and water pollution, and simply transporting it to the sites consumes an increasing amount of valuable fossil fuels, which produces more pollution and other problems.
Buried in a landfill, the typical plastic trash bag takes 1,000 years to degrade, giving off toxins as it does.
Wet Garbage = Water Pollution
Wet garbage, including yard waste which is 50 to 70 % water, adds to the toxic stew of chemicals — household cleaners, antiperspirants, nail polish, paint and so on — that mix in a landfill. In old, unlined landfills, this leachate, diluted and made more mobile by rainwater, percolated down to the bottom of the fill. There, it would sink into the soil, spreading downwards and outwards in a characteristic brush-stroke shape known as a plume, contaminating soil and water as it moved.
Closing a landfill or capping it with cement does not stop its plume from advancing. Modern, sanitary landfills are usually lined to prevent such pollution and the leachate is drawn off and treated. However, it is naive to assume that a liner will never fail
Organic Garbage = Air Pollution
Air pollution may seem an unlikely consequence of landfills, but in fact it is a major problem. The primary culprit is anything organic such as yard and food waste.
Waste at landfills is usually compressed to save space. Each day’s deposit is covered with a layer of dirt to discourage insects and rodents and to help shed rain and thus minimize leachate. So far, so good. But the result is an almost oxygen-free environment. When organic materials decompose in such anaerobic conditions they produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
Since composting produces carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, it’s reasonable to suspect that the compost/landfill choice is a classic six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other situation. The first produces carbon dioxide, the second produces methane. What’s the difference between them? Is it really worth the time and effort to keep organics out of landfills?
It does matter where the stuff degrades and how. CO2 is a major pollutant and a major problem. But methane is worse. Methane is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The world’s trash crisis, and why many Americans are oblivious
Nations around the globe observe Earth Day, one of the most daunting issues facing the world is the mounting waste problem, which impairs public health, pollutes the environment and threatens to drown some poor countries in toxicity.
More than half the world’s population does not have access to regular trash collection, a grim statistic given the amount of garbage produced globally.
Some experts say the globe’s trash troubles are at a crisis level. Here are a look at the problem and some possible solutions:
What is the scope of the waste problem?
The United States, China, Brazil, Japan and Germany are the leading trash generators. The U.S. produced about 228 million tons of waste in 2006, a figure that climbed to 254 tons by 2013. China (with a population around four times larger than that of the U.S.) is close behind, with 190 million tons of waste per year.
The more urbanized and industrialized a country becomes, the more trash it produces, Ijjasz-Vasquez said. The United Nations Environment Program predicts the amount of waste will probably double in lower-income African and Asian cities as a result of population growth, urbanization and rising consumption.
“There is no end in sight to this trend,” the U.N. agency says. “Public waste systems in cities cannot keep pace with urban expansion; rapid industrialization is happening in countries that have not yet developed the appropriate systems to deal with hazardous and special wastes.”
Ijjasz-Vasquez said developing nations tend to spend more on collection than on disposal, but collection is still not efficient. South Asia and Africa have the lowest level of efficient waste collection, according World Bank statistics.
Why are many Americans oblivious to being serial waste generators?
“Because we’re not seeing it, we think it’s not a problem,” said Mark Dancy, president of WasteZero, one of the nation’s largest waste reduction companies.
Unlike most utilities, such as gas, water and electricity, that are charged depending on how much is used, it works differently for waste.
Because most cities and towns charge a flat fee for trash service or include it within the property tax, most Americans pay little attention to the amount of waste they are discarding, he said.
“By taking our waste away from us so efficiently, it makes us more inclined to dispose more,” said Joshua Reno, an assistant professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, who studies trash.
Reno, who spent a year working as a paper picker at a mega-landfill on the outskirts of Detroit exploring our relationship with garbage, said that although the country has no shortage of space for its trash, even the best-run landfills can stress the environment.
Unregulated or illegal dumpsites serve about 4 billion people and hold more than 40% of the waste worldwide, according to the World Bank.
What are the threats and ramifications of the global trash problem?
The threat of waste to the environment, health and safety is huge. And so are the financial and social ramifications, waste experts say.
Pollution runs into rivers and seeps into ground water. Flooding is caused by garbage clogging drains, and the atmosphere can be poisoned by the toxic discharge from trash.
When waste is not collected, the frequency of illness such as diarrhea doubles and acute respiratory infection — linked to the burning of waste — is six times higher, Ijjasz-Vasquez said.
In less developed nations, uncollected waste is typically heaviest near less affluent neighborhoods and slums. For scavengers, discarded food in the heaps of trash provides sustenance and a livelihood.
t the same time, those who forage through the dumps expose themselves to hazards such as lead and mercury and infectious agents.
Trash also causes a financial burden. Cities in developing countries spend 20% to 50% of their budgets dealing with waste management, a hardship for cash-strapped nations, Ijjasz-Vasquez said.
In the U.S., about $200 billion a year is spent on solid waste management and lost energy resources from disposing trash, according to Dancy.
10 Shocking Facts About Your Garbage
1. More Than 100 Tons of Waste for Every American: The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day. That’s 102 tons in a lifetime, more than any other populations on Earth.
2. Bottled Water Is the “Grandfather of Wasteful Industries.” Edward Humes, author of the book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” counts bottled water among the most wasteful of industries. In the US, Americans toss 60 million water bottles daily, which is nearly 700 each minute.
3. Food Waste Is a Problem Too: Americans throw away 28 billion pounds of food a year, which is about 25 percent of the US food supply.
4. Disposables Are a Drain: Ten percent of the world’s oil supply is used to make and ship disposable plastics – items like plastic utensils, plates, and cups that are used just one time and thrown away.
5. Trash Is Expensive: Most communities spend more to deal with trash than they spend for school books, fire protection, libraries, and parks.
6. Carpet Waste Alone Is Astounding: Americans throw away 5.7 million tons of carpet every year.
7. Paper Waste Is a Shame: Americans waste 4.5 million tons of office paper a year. Ask yourself… do I really need to print that?
8. Opting Out of Junk Mail Makes a Difference: According to Humes, the energy used to create and distribute junk mail in the US for one day could heat 250,000 homes. You can opt-out of junk mail by going to CatalogChoice.org.
9. Too Many Toys: Only 4 percent of the world’s children live in the US, but Americans buy (and throw away) 40 percent of the world’s toys. Buy less toys, opt for second-hand versions, and pass down the toys you do purchase to others.
10. Plastic Bags: On average, Americans use 500 plastic bags per capita each year. Such bags make up the second most common type of garbage found on beaches. Stash reusable shopping bags in your purse or car so you’re not tempted by plastic or paper.