Every Thursday morning as I meander down my block towards the bus stop, I check out my neighbors' trash. Big black plastic sacks ooze remnants from the week gone by and twice a month, bright blue recycling bins overflow with evidence of just how much plastic the average American household goes through. I count the number of ugly brown trash cans each neighbor needs to contain their week's waste. I make note of those who stuff leaves into bags for their curbside pick-up and those who do not. Mostly, I examine my neighbors' lives like an archaeologist examines a culture's remains--I draw conclusions about their habits based on what they throw away. Yep: I like trash.
Having recently polished off the wonderful tome Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, my Thursday mornings have taken on a different meaning lately. More than a voyeuristic glimpse at someone's private life--it's like the gossip section of a magazine without buying a magazine!--or a somewhat self-righteous assessment of others' ecological footprints, my walk now conjures up statistics of biosolids, stories behind Fresh Kills, the nasty PR campaign surrounding triangular recycling symbols, and musings about how long leachate containment systems will hold up. To share this new awakening with you dear Boothers without subjecting you to another book review, I grabbed my camera for my curbside stroll, nabbing pictures (and pretending not to mind neighbors' inquisitive eyes) and scribbling notes as I went.
Ahh, trash. Good ole American trash. We throw out 4.3 pounds of you per person per day, nearly double the daily amount produced per American citizen in 1960. Life Less Plastic blogs about the EPA's 2005 report on municipal waste, saying the amount of trash sent to landfills has actually decreased slightly this decade. Some theorize that deposit bills mean we're throwing out more but it weighs less. Five cents for that plastic Coke bottle is an incentive after all. According to the State of Garbage in America report cited in Royte's book, 65.6% of our trash goes to a landfill. The rest is composted, recycled, or burned. Essentially, we are producing more waste, but recycling a bit more too. Sounds to me like the third R--recycle--was heard more clearly by the American public than the first and most important--reduce.
Where does it all go? After the sanitation workers pick up your trash and whisk it away, it usually heads for a transfer station nearby (and often, this means a lower-class neighborhood), where the supercompressed garbage is dumped. From there, your trash travels on a tractor-trailer to an incinerator or landfill, which is more and more often in another state and almost always in another economically depressed town. There, your trash produces contaminated moisture, or leachate, and toxic landfill gases--including 32% of our nation's methane emissions--for thousands of years. "If you produce pollution, someone's going to get it," Majora Carter called out at a lecture last year in Boston. She deemed poverty a byproduct of overconsumption, and assured us that "there are smarter ways to deal with waste."
What used to happen to trash? One hundred and fifty years ago, a peddler would have come to your house and taken your old clothes, ashes, metal, bones, and rubber, which in turn would be sold back to you in the form of soap, tins, boots, and buttons. Cooking grease would become candles or soap. Every bit of an animal's carcass from the kitchen would turn into something else: knife handles, lighting, glue, fertilizer. The waste system was more of a closed-loop one than we have now, and paper was so precious that it wasn't thrown away at all. I envy this circular system and I've added Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser to my to-read list. Eventually, though, as population bloomed and cities proliferated, the trash piled up so high that the government had to step in and create a disposal system.
"Virgin papermaking is one of the most environmentally harmful industries on earth," Royte writes. The Natural Resources Defense Council puts the papermaking industry at the third spot on its list of the largest source of greenhouse gases in the U.S. Paper, along with glass, is easy to recycle, and essential, seeing how it is the #1 household item thrown away (food is #2).
Composting confession at the Booth: I never really got composting. My thinking was something along the lines of, well if food's easily biodegradable, why would I go through the trouble of composting? As an urban dweller, I had no need for garden dirt. But food doesn't easily biodegrade in a landfill. In fact, the majority of objects in a landfill never touch soil. Now I've learned that worms are the best pets. Every piece I don't throw out is more land for the future.I always shake my head at bags of leaves. Why do we interrupt nature's cycles? Leaves are not waste. Once, a harried neighbor was raking her leaves into a bag and trying to watch her two children near the street when I happened by. "I can only get one bag done today," she confessed. "Why bother?" I asked, gesturing to her children. "You have more important things to do." She paused to position her rake better. "Because everyone else rakes them up around here, so we probably should, too," she explained.
What about the people? Recycling employs ten times more people than landfilling or incineration. It also creates havoc in developing countries when plastic and toxic e-waste is just dumped. According to the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers cited in Royte's book, 35% of PET bottles collected in the U.S. in 2003 were exported, usually to China.
For every 100 pounds of consumer products, 3,200 pounds of waste is created. -Paul Hawken
"Perhaps one of the most important things I'd learned in the past year," Royte writes, "was the names of the people who took away my trash." Tape the sharp ends together. Uncover your cans, but put the lid on if it rains. Tie up your cardboard. Put your garbage cans in an easily accessible spot (which is to say, not behind a parked car). Say hello and wave. These small steps make sanitation workers' lives easier.
Plastic. Artists are drawing attention to our habits, using pieces drifting in the ocean, photographing albatross chicks, and drawing attention to Styrofoam. Plastic bottle caps are the new six-rings. "[Plastic recycling] is not recycling at all," Ann Leonard of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance told Royte. "We're just delaying its eventual dumping." Plastic never biodegrades--it photodegrades, which means it gets smaller and smaller until we can't see it. But it's still there, and when marine researcher Charles Moore surveyed 500 square miles in the North Pacific in 2002, he found 10 pounds of plastic for each pound of zooplankton. "Plastic is toxic both to make and to dispose of," Royte writes: five of the top six chemicals whose production generates the most hazardous waste are commonly used by the plastics industry, according to the EPA.
What can you recycle? As Royte toured paper recycling mills and observed the process of making "primordial paper soup," she realized through the slurry that "putting waxed-paper bags in my recycling pile wasn't the worst thing in the world, that I didn't need to tear out glassine windows from pasta boxes or get every last popcorn kernel from the microwave. Chris Lovett would do it for me." What a relief! I always wondered just how much I had to rinse those peanut butter jars.
While I'm not quite ready to be pegged a zero-waste zealot, my latest project is using less plastic. Like EnviRambo, I'm asking why. I'm refocusing my efforts on reducing and reusing so my child will be left with land, not landfills. And while I acknowledge that solid municipal waste--all 232,000,000 tons of it each year--accounts for a mere 2% of the total U.S. waste, I still see value in being an ecological citizen.
If you don't have time to read Garbage Land or pick up Royte's newest, Bottlemania, her blog is chocked full of resources and short bits of info that can be digested quickly.