It’s high time to talk some trash — because we’re running out of space for all our garbage.
Each of us throws away some 4.9 pounds of garbage every day in the United States — 40 percent more than just three decades ago. Landfills are overflowing. Much of what we carefully sort for recycling ends up being dumped. Additionally, burning our waste in incinerators unleashes dioxins, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury, and more.
What’s the future for all our trash? And how do we stop ourselves from filling the world with garbage?
These are some of the current ideas for addressing this looming issue.
1) Live Smaller
Generating less garbage is a smart starting point. It also seems obvious — but it’s not always easy.
Much of our food comes in plastic, and nearly everything else seems to be encased in more protective packaging, especially as we buy from online companies.
Bea Johnson was feeling like her life was being crowded out by material things and wrote a book about her family’s experiences cutting back, Zero-Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. She recommends the five Rs for living more with less: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot.
Now, she says, “Our life is based on experiences instead of things. It’s based on being instead of having, and that is really what makes life richer.” (For reducing and reusing ideas, see “5 Ways to Live Small“.)
2) Waste Nothing
Some forward-thinking cities — Minneapolis, Boston, Stockholm, and Adelaide, Australia, among others — aim to leave no trash behind. “The goal of zero-waste programs is to reduce — and eventually eliminate — what we discard in landfills and incinerators,” explains Minneapolis’s mission statement. These cities are developing various programs to deal with all waste via recycling, composting, and resource recovery.
Some cities are also investing in single-stream trash pickup: People can throw everything in one bin, and new tech akin to facial-recognition software automates sorting it for recycling, composting, and other disposal.
3) Energize It
In a new generation of waste-to-energy incinerators, trash is being burned to produce energy. These plants are more common in Europe and Japan, where there’s less space for landfills. And some landfills are generating electricity by using the methane gas that decomposing biomass produces.
4) Compost It
Municipal composting operations have blossomed across the country in recent years, “recycling” food waste, grass clippings, leaves, wood, leather products, and certain paper and cardboard items into compost that cities can then use as fertilizer and green landfill. (See “How to Start Composting” to learn how to create your own compost bin.)
5) Rethink Recycling
Many of us conscientiously sort the paper, plastic, and aluminum from our trash, but in recent years the recycling industry has largely collapsed, sending our recyclables to landfills instead. For more than 25 years, the United States shipped the bulk of its recyclable waste to China for processing; that changed in 2017 when China stopped buying our garbage, in large part to protect its own environment.
U.S. manufacturers need to embrace recycling and reuse resources, says Pulitzer Prize–winning environmental journalist Edward Humes, author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash. Recycling is indeed expensive, but it’s still generally less costly to reprocess trash into raw materials than extract virgin resources and produce new materials. “Recycling economics should be weighed not as the last step in waste disposal, but as the first step in manufacturing,” he says.
But recycling should be our “last line of defense against waste, not the leading one,” he adds. “Recycling, in short, is better than nothing, but not nearly good enough on its own.” We need to reduce our use: Not wasting materials in the first place is naturally more efficient and less expensive than recovering resources via recycling.
6) Dissolve It
Once upon a time, plastic was seen as the future, but today it’s overflowing our landfills, polluting our oceans, and making its way into the human digestive tract — it’s even been found in human embryos. Plastic isn’t biodegradable and recycling is problematic. But scientists have discovered super enzymes that “eat” plastic and a bacterium that dines on polyurethanes. Researchers hope to develop a process to recycle the detritus.
Still, reducing plastic use in the first place is the most environmentally friendly option. (For ideas on using less plastic every day, see “18 Ways to Live With Less Plastic“.)
7) Build With It
We already turn empty plastic water bottles into fleece jackets, tired tires into walkways, castoff roofing material into pavement, and discarded plastic bags into deck material.
This concept is flourishing in developing countries. In Guatemala, Susanne Heisse’s Pura Vida group created the Eco-Block made of crushed garbage. The blocks are being used to build schools and homes, and the technology is being adopted throughout Central America, as well as in Southeast Asia.
In Kenya, plastic waste is being mixed with sand, then heated and compressed into bricks and paving blocks by materials engineer Nzambi Matee’s Gjenge Makers firm. “Our product is five to seven times stronger than concrete,” Matee reports.
The nonprofit architectural firm Terreform ONE in New York City is working to mold garbage into building blocks to construct skyscrapers.
What Can I Do Now?
- Refuse things you don’t really need. Ask to be removed from paper mailing lists.
- Reduce what you purchase by asking yourself if you truly need it. The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place.
- Buy used. You can find everything from clothes to building materials at specialized reuse centers and consignment shops. Used items are less expensive and often just as good as new.
- Pick products made from recycled materials.
- Select reusable or refillable over disposable items.
- Choose items with less packaging.
- Bring your own reusable bags to the store.
- Compost food scraps and yard waste.
- Maintain and repair products like clothing, tires, and appliances, so that you won’t have to throw them out and replace them as frequently.
- Borrow, rent, or share items you use infrequently, such as tools, snow blowers, or party decorations.
- Recycle things by donating them: Clothes and household goods can go to a variety of charitable organizations; building materials are collected by Habitat for Humanity and other reuse centers; even vehicles can be donated to many charities.
- Upgrade old electronics when possible to continue using them. Otherwise, donate or recycle devices. Many manufacturers and stores offer various types of recycling or reuse programs. (For details on electronics recycling, see the EPA’s valuable site at www.epa.gov/recycle/electronics-donation-and-recycling#where.)
Whatever solutions visionaries come up with, the best answer is to create less garbage from the start, and we can all play a role in making that the reality.
This article originally appeared as “Garbage 2.0” in the July/August 2021 issue of Experience Life.