Garbage is not something most Americans are encouraged to think about — except, perhaps, on the day it is collected. The very act of disposing of our trash is such an ingrained part of our daily habits that we almost don’t notice it.
When a hand crunches up a wad of scrap paper or a foot presses the pedal on a kitchen trash can, the mind initiating these actions rarely evaluates or analyzes them. They are merely rote motions — gestures that most of us perform effortlessly, every morning, afternoon and night.
If someone were to ask you how many times, during the course of a single day, you threw something out, would you know the answer? When you haul a bag of trash to the curb, are you able to recall — even approximately — what items the bag contains? If you are like most Americans, the answer to both these questions is an easy “no.”
Our culture has made the disposal of undesirable objects so easy that we toss and flush waste away as though it were a natural, bodily act — something akin to breathing or sweating. We rarely stop and ask what our trash might be able to teach us about our society or ourselves. But maybe we should.
Living With Our Leavings
For roughly seven thousand years, people got rid of their garbage by gathering it up, carting it out of their living environment and dumping, burying or burning it in an isolated area. As our culture developed and people lived in more densely populated locations, contaminated garbage created devastating health problems, including bubonic plague, cholera and typhoid fever. But even with these terrible outbreaks, the system mostly worked. That’s because trash consisted of biodegradable compounds that decomposed easily.
The reign of naturally decomposing garbage came to an end in the 1940s, when scientific breakthroughs ushered in the invention of the plastics and petrochemicals that are now integral to our everyday lives. The problem with these synthetic materials is that they don’t decompose when thrown away. And that’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that, while they never fully break down, many of these materials emit toxins that cause serious harm to the environment and human health.
Oven cleaners, air fresheners and carpet deodorizers are just a few of the chemically based products we use to make our immediate environments look and smell cleaner. But have you ever considered what happens when foam that’s capable of dissolving cooked-on oven grime gets rinsed from a sponge into the water supply, or a caustic, clog-busting drain cleaner gets flushed into a lake? That’s exactly what happens when most of us do the cleaning. Think you’re getting around it with those disposable wipes and paper towels? Think again: They go straight into land-fills or up in smoke in incinerators.
Worse, all these products come in packages that create even more trash, and are manufactured by industries that produce hazardous waste and polluted water in almost inconceivable quantities. But let’s get back to household garbage. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of garbage per day. That’s almost twice as much trash per person as other developed countries. Why? Mostly because we have become addicted to what we think of as convenience. We love that we can start the day with a double cappuccino and then quickly toss out the cup, cardboard sleeve and plastic lid the moment we’re finished. We think nothing of printing out emails so that we can read them when we’re away from our computer. We love individually packaged servings of applesauce, cheese and potato chips because they are neat, because they are cute, and because they are so much easier to eat while we are on the go.
It would be nice not to have to think about garbage. It would be nice to continue ignoring our trashy ways and to think that someone, somewhere, is taking care of the stuff we toss out — or trusting that it is somehow taking care of itself.
After all, that’s more or less what we’ve done for the past couple hundred years.
The problem is, our garbage is catching up with us. Industrial waste, nuclear waste, household waste, human waste —we’re pumping it out in ever greater quantities and trying harder and harder to find good places to stash it. But increasingly, our health and the health of our environment are demanding that we start dealing more directly with the many ways waste impacts the quality of our lives. Learning where our waste goes is the first step. So let’s start with a short lesson on the basics of garbage.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the majority of our trash — roughly 57 percent — is trucked to land-fills. Unlike old-fashioned garbage dumps, where our waste was buried in unlined pits that teemed with birds and rats feeding on rotting food and garbage juice, landfills are carefully sealed off from surrounding land and groundwater with specially designed liners made of clay or plastic. The thing is, many common household substances, including mothballs, shoe polish and even margarine, can cause the liners to crack and leak. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that when all the chemicals we rely on to scour and shine our homes and our cars leach into the groundwater, the environmental consequences are frightening.
Landfill officials will quickly point out that it is against the law for municipal landfills to accept “hazardous wastes.” But a recent study conducted by Texas A & M University found that leachate (a charming term for water contaminated with waste) from non-hazardous landfills is often every bit as dangerous as the leachate from hazardous-waste sites.
Even those landfills that don’t leak or crack are not immune from environmental consequences. Properly functioning landfills have no air or water to help trash disintegrate. This means that landfills just fill up and sit — forever. Forty-year-old newspapers have been found in landfills with print that is still easy to read. Clearly, as long as we keep producing garbage, we will need to continue to assign more and more of our land to landfill sites. You’d think, knowing this, we’d look for ways to minimize the amount of garbage we produce. But as a rule, we don’t.
Until recently, the majority of New York City’s garbage was buried in the oddly named Fresh Kills Landfill. But that landfill filled up and was permanently closed in 2001. Today, instead of educating New Yorkers about how to reduce the levels of garbage they produce, the city has decided to haul its trash out of state, sometimes to landfills as far away as Virginia. Since most people don’t want landfills in their backyards, however, finding landfill space can be tricky. Often it involves paying low-income communities for the right to stash trash in their vicinity. The local cash infusion may be appealing in the short run, but in the long run, the tradeoff is rarely a good deal for anyone: Landfills often wind up as Superfund sites that cost taxpayers everywhere.
One alternative to landfilling our garbage is incinerating it. But like hauling waste to ever-more-remote areas, burning trash treats the symptoms of our problem without addressing its underlying causes. Fifteen percent of America’s garbage is currently taken to incinerators. Garbage-burner proponents rightly point out that incinerators are a cost-effective way to generate energy for the communities whose trash they are burning. But there are two main drawbacks to burning waste. First, incineration causes air pollution, making air that is often already unhealthy even worse. Second, burned garbage creates ash. The lead and cadmium contained in the ash remains permanently toxic. And where does this ash get stored? You guessed it — in landfills. Of course, land-filling and incinerating aren’t the only options …
What Goes Around
In addition to stuffing that Hefty® bag beyond its capacity and schlepping it to the trash can, most of us now also dutifully sort our cans, bottles, newspapers, magazines, scrap paper, cardboard and plastics for recycling. Americans currently recycle an average of 1.19 pounds per day; Seattle and Minneapolis are nationwide leaders in this effort and recycle nearly 60 percent of their municipal waste. But overall, only 28 percent of our nation’s garbage gets recycled or composted.
According to the Sierra Club, even though we have the technologies to recycle virtually all the components of garbage, we haven’t made it a priority.
The garbage industry explains that recycling is “too expensive” and not as “cost effective” as landfilling and incinerating, but the environmental costs are rarely factored into the cost equation. And almost never does anyone bother to consider the potential positive aspects of significantly reducing the quantity of our trash altogether.
It’s important to take recycling seriously; it’s one effective way to reduce the amount of trash piling up on our national mountain of garbage. But it’s also important to not let our recycling efforts lull us into a false notion that we have solved our garbage problem. In addition to our commitment to recycle, we need to think more about how we can reuse the stuff we already own and, perhaps most importantly, reduce the amount of stuff we consume.
There’s also a dark side to recycling — namely, that “recycling” has such positive, benign associations that it be conveniently co-opted by industries that would like to economically “recycle” their hazardous wastes (including radioactive and chemical wastes) in ways that pose serious dangers to human health and the environment.
Take the case of sewer sludge. According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, co-authors of Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, “In traditional, agricultural societies, human waste was prized as a prime ingredient in what the Chinese called “night soil” — artfully composted, high-grade fertilizer.” Today our urine and feces are flushed into the same sewers as highly toxic industrial wastes. The water that carries these combined wastes is filtered at water treatment plants, and what’s left over is known as “sludge.” The problem with sludge is that once it’s been created, it needs to be disposed of. Thus, despite the fact that sludge contains more than 60,000 toxic substances and chemical compounds, the EPA promotes spreading sewage sludge that has been mixed with other industrial wastes — a slurry that it has conveniently renamed “biosolids” — on farm fields as fertilizer. Such biosolids can quickly find their way into the air, water and food supply where they can seriously undermine the health of humans and wildlife for hundreds of years.
Down in the Dumps?
Okay, yes, this is fairly depressing information. But there is no reason to give into fatalistic, “I-can’t-make-a-difference” thinking. Things have only gotten this way because we’ve allowed them to! You can personally reduce the amount of trash that you produce simply by getting informed and starting to notice what goes in and out of your home. Becoming more aware of your personal garbage will increase your awareness of industrial garbage and waste-disposal issues, which in turn will inspire you to join with others in encouraging our elected officials to cease empowering government and industry to make short-sighted, profit-driven choices.
It all starts with a moment of realization: Maybe it’s a moment when you realize that you consistently buy five single servings of yogurt per week, and that purchasing one large tub instead could reduce some waste (especially if you wash and reuse the container to refrigerate leftovers). Maybe it’s when you decide to bring your thermos to the local café instead of grabbing your four-hundredth to-go cup this year. Perhaps it’s when a pile of magazines catches your eye and spurs you into a commitment to recycle. Or maybe, one day at lunch, the plastic utensils you throw away after each and every meal start to feel just a little less inevitable.
Once you start having these “garbage moments,” waste and waste-disposal activities that once seemed invisible to you will suddenly seem almost impossible not to notice. And rather than depressing you, the idea of minimizing garbage will actually start to inspire you. Because if you notice and care, you’ll realize that it’s possible for others to notice and care, too. And that, invariably, is how change begins.
What Rot! (A quick guide to composting)
Composting is a method for breaking down solid organic waste, such as grass clippings, leaves, pine needles and table scraps, and turning it into a natural fertilizer for gardening and farming. According to the Sierra Club, the world mines 139 million tons of phosphate rock and 20 million tons of potash to obtain the amounts of phosphorus and potassium that are needed to replace nutrients that crops remove from the soil. Composting urban organic waste returns nutrients to the land without the environmental degradation associated with mining. And it makes your gardens and plantings gorgeous!
To make compost, you need three things: Waste, oxygen and a compost bin. Luckily for us, the first two are in abundant supply. As for the compost bin, you can, according to the health regulations of your neighborhood, construct one out of something as simple as chicken wire wrapped around posts. More sophisticated models made of recycled plastic are available at most hardware or home-repair stores, and may even be available free or at a discount from your county.
To start composting, place the organic materials in the bin and cover them with soil. Add water to the compost, but don’t soak it. Then turn the compost with a shovel to provide it with plenty of air. Add new materials to the compost as they become available — many composters keep a bucket of food scraps under the sink and empty it into the compost bin each night. Turn the compost every day or two. As the material decomposes it will settle to the bottom of the bin. You can tell when it’s ready to spread on your garden when it’s dark black or brown, crumbly and smells like soil (vs. spoiled stuff). You should not be able to recognize any of the trash that you originally put in the bin.
No yard? Apartment dwellers can do red-worm composting (super neat and odorless) in a bucket under their sinks! To learn more about composting, see “How to Start Composting.”
Junk Food Junk
A quick peek into your trash could tell you a surprising amount about what you’re eating — and what you’re not. That collection of donut boxes, Styrofoam hamburger shells, soda bottles, pizza boxes and plastic containers tells a story, as does the absence of any homemade table scraps (unless of course you are feeding them all to your pets).
Generally speaking, if you’ve got a trash can full of processed-food packages and little or nothing to compost or make soup from, it could be a sign of trouble in your diet.
In the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns, Jason Robards’s character, Murray, looks out his New York City window and chides his neighbors for what he sees as a telling lack of qual- ity garbage: “I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that some- thing must be done about your garbage cans in the alley: It is definitely second-rate garbage! Now by next week, I want to see a better class of garbage! More empty champagne bottles and caviar tins!”
Of course, we’d holler out something like: “More carrot tops! More spinach stems, more orange rinds and organic eggshells!” But you get the idea. Why not take a look at your alley and see what your trash has to say?
Let’s Drink to Refills!
Both Finland and Denmark have reduced their garbage levels by banning the use of “one-way” beverage containers, including soda and beer cans and plastic beverage bottles.
Although approximately one-half of all beverage containers purchased annually in the United States are recycled, Americans trash more than 270 million beer and soft drink containers every day.
According to the Container Recycling Institute, “the manufacturing of nonrefillable, one-way glass, aluminum, plastic and bi-metal containers is an energy-intensive process that depletes our mineral resources, pollutes air and water resources, and generates millions of tons of post-consumer waste each year. Replacing one-way beverage bottles and cans with refillable bottles conserves energy and natural resources, and reduces waste at the source.”
Big industry isn’t the only polluter of our water supply. Recent studies indicate that our wastewater also contains chemicals found in our medicine and cleaning-supply cabinets. Dubbed PPCPs (pharmaceutical and personal-care products) these include aspirin, nicotine, caffeine and antibacterial agents. They also include the pharmaceuticals from feedlots (according to Science News, an estimated 40 percent of the antibiotics produced in the United States is fed to livestock).
European, Canadian and American scientists have documented that sewage treatment plants aren’t filtering out many of these contaminants. They have been found in mountain lakes, urban streams and even drinking water. Also of concern are synthetic steroids and estrogenic drugs in hormone replacement therapy, birth control pills and athletic-performance enhancers; they have been frequently found in surface water fed by sewage.
Clean It Up: 21 Earth-Friendly Tips!
- Reduce trash at the point of origin. You don’t shop with the intention of creating more trash. But unless you purchase long-lasting products that you will use repeatedly, that is basically what you are doing. Select products with an eye toward reducing the number of cinch sacks you use every week. Reduce your dependence on single-use items such as paper plates and napkins, disposable cups and silverware. Resist the “convenience” of single serving products.
- Consider borrowing or renting items that you don’t use on a regular basis. You might be all worked up about that fondue pot now, but how many times will you really use it over the next 20 years?
- Get the most out of what you DO buy. Whether you’re shopping for cars or coffee makers, it’s tempting to go for the “good deal”. But if low price is an indication of inferior quality, that item will be landfill-bound sooner rather than later. Before making a purchasing decision, consult experts such as Consumer Reports. Evaluate the repair history of the product. Maintain the things you buy so they last as long as possible.
- Buy items you can recycle. Buy products made with recycled content and packaged in recyclable materials. Participate in your community’s curbside recycling program by separating recyclables from other garbage. If there is no curbside pick-up, learn where you can take items to be recycled.
- Invest in a few sturdy cloth bags for your groceries. Then, when the clerk asks you if you prefer paper or plastic, you can happily answer “I brought my own!” Toss small purchases into your backpack or purse instead of carrying them out in a bag you’ll use for mere minutes.
- Shop in the bulk aisle at the grocery or super store for items that you buy often and that have long shelf lives. Examples include: basmati rice, pasta, cereal, detergents, pet food, paper products. (Tip: Make sure that these items are not individually wrapped inside one humongous package.
- Buy concentrated or dehydrated detergent. It uses less packaging and you’ll waste less because you can use it according to demand.
- Use the consumer hotlines provided by many companies to lodge complaints about excessive packaging and to suggest that developing a better environmental profile would do them (and the planet) good. Why does that tiny bottle have to come in such a huge plastic-wrapped box or blister pak?
- Choose the least hazardous cleaning products you can. Cleansers with the words “caution” and “warning” on the labels are more likely to be dangerous to curious children, and to harm the environment. Whichever products you choose, remember to use the correct amount. Gobs of dishwasher soap won’t get your dishes any cleaner. (Or, make your own cleaners with these recipes.)
- Minimize the chemicals that are used on your behalf: Most drycleaning and carwashing establishments use (and throw away) large quantities of very toxic stuff. Whenever possible, seek out vendors and service suppliers who offer eco-friendly alternatives.
- When buying paint for your home, rather than overestimating, figure out how many square feet you actually have by measuring the height and width of each room and then multi-plying those two figures together. One gallon of paint covers approximately 400 square feet. Use low-VOC, water-based paints and stains whenever possible. To prevent paint from drying out, cover the can with plastic wrap before replacing the lid. Then store the can upside down where it won’t freeze. Never pour paint down the drain or put anything more than small amounts of air-dried latex paint in the trash.
- Deliver used car batteries, oil, paints and solvents to an official hazardous-waste facility. Your county office can tell you where.
- Use rechargeable batteries. Most recycling centers have stopped accepting disposable batteries, which means more heavy metals than ever are getting landfilled.
- Get rid of unwanted furniture, electronics and other household items by having a garage sale, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Take all unsold items to the Goodwill or Salvation Army. You can also redistribute such things through a “free market”. Call your county for info.
- Compost food, garden and yard waste. Visit www.mastercomposter.com to learn how. Also, call your county to see if they distribute compost bins.
- Put paper towels out of reach so that you use them only when you really need to. Set up a bin or wall holder with reusable sponges, rags and cloth towels.
- Use metal, reusable mugs and water bottles for to-go coffee and drinks. This can also cut down on the amount of plastics and dioxins you ingest.
- Reduce the waste in your children’s school lunches. Use reusable plastic containers instead of plastic bags and resist the temptation to buy those single-serving foods that kids find so appealing. Help them understand the impact, and challenge them to think of creative ways to reduce trash on their own.
- Look for waste that’s occurring at work. Are there recycling programs in place? Could discarded office paper and other supplies be used by a local school or otherwise productively employed by someone else? See if your state offers environmental assistance programs to help fund targeted waste and pollution-prevention projects.
- Organize a neighborhood clean-up day. Once a season, take your kids on a block-cleaning escapade (or see if your county has an “adopt-a-highway” ditch-cleaning program). Helping to pick up litter as a family is a great bonding exercise. It also instills pride and optimism, and is a great way to ensure your kids never become litterbugs themselves!
- Do a trash audit to figure out exactly how much and what kind of trash you produce. For details on this and more, check out www.howstuffworks.com/composting.
This article has been updated. It was originally published online on March 1, 2003.