Landfill Ruminations

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My friend gave me this tiny, 8 fluid ounce water bottle the other day, shortly after I started this blog and started moving towards a zero waste lifestyle (hey, it’s a journey, not a destination!), and at first, I was tempted to throw it back at her and shout “OFF DEVIL!!” since I was slaving away in my house trying to rid my lifestyle of plastic and here she was presenting me with a tiny piece of evil like it was some sort of holy grail. 

But then I realized that this water bottle was the same one that we were offered ceremoniously on a tray while shopping. Without really thinking about why, I politely refused and my friend accepted. 

And the reason she gave it back to me, in all its tiny, innocent, shiny, plastic-y glory was because of her thought process behind it. She accepted the water bottle, drank the water within, realized it came nowhere near slaking her thirst, and started wondering about the life cycle of that bottle. 

I am here to tell you a little bit about that life cycle and the life cycle of our trash in general. This post is not meant to prove to you that I am an Urban Homesteader Asshole (hilarious, thanks Ali), but rather because its important to me, and this is my blog, damn it. Nobody’s holding your eyes open with sticks and making you read this. Hopefully. (If they are, I’m really sorry and you should probably seek help). This is a long post, but stick with me. It’s worth the read! 

I am reading this amazing book called The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well By Throwing Away Less. It’s written by a lovely woman named Amy Korst who decided to live with her husband zero-waste for a year. They ended up producing less than a full SHOEBOX of landfill-destined trash by the end of the year. (!!!!???? I produce eighteen times that in a WEEK. I want to be her when I grow up.)

Much of the following information comes from her book, so peruse it, buy her book, or go chase after the person holding your eyes open with sticks. Its up to you. 

LANDFILLS, 101 (sounds like a class from Garbage Management School)

What I Imagine Happens #1: I thought my biodegradable trash (and even my recycling) went to some magical place where the biodegradable stuff broke down into fertilizer and caused gumdrop trees to grow and those gumdrop trees attracted unicorns that galloped about eating the gumdrops and generally feeling awesome. Orrrrr, minus the unicorns. I definitely thought that it was true that my trash broke down and became soil eventually, up until two things happened: I visited the dump (and realized it didn’t smell nearly enough), and I read Amy Korst’s book. 

What Really Happens: Your trash gets thrown in your SimpleHuman anti-stink, special-trash-bag trash can (I have one, so I’m allowed to poke fun). Plastics, aluminum cans from your Spaghetti-Os (more on trash audits in the next post), scraps from food (meat and veggie), newspapers, etc. We will just assume for the sake of simplicity that the you in this example does not recycle or has co-mingled trash/recycling (like I do…suspicious I am). The Garbage Managers come and pick up your stinky trash and haul it off to sight-unseen landfill. Here’s where it gets really crazy. 

The dump is basically a giant pit some enterprising soul dug in the ground and covered in thick, industrial grade plastic (to keep anything from getting into the soil) and attached a pump to (to pump out anything threatening the plastic). The truck dumps your garbage into this pit, and it fills up and fills up with EVERYTHING the world throws away (minus everything people fling casually out their car windows) and as it fills up, it compacts down. And the toilet bowl cleaner you threw away bursts and leaks all over your old peach, and eventually a toxic sludge known as LEACHATE (liquified food, rainwater, toilet bowl cleaner, old nail polish, battery acid from unrecycled batteries, etc.) sinks to the bottom of the pit, where it sets about chewing holes in the plastic. Over 80% of dumps surveyed have known plastic leaks, which means that this stuff IS getting into our groundwater. And our soil. Not to mention our air.

Because it has compacted down, too, and more trash is thrown on top of it, the environment becomes ANAEROBIC (without oxygen), and normal fermentation cannot occur like it can in a compost pit. When they did a dump audit (some courageous soul by the name of William Rathje went about disproving the myth that landfills are giant compost piles), they found ONE-THIRD to ONE-HALF of all food and yard waste was still recognizable twenty years after it had been buried. It just sits there for all eternity, releasing methane gas from anaerobic fermentation. 

This is not to say that some fermentation does not occur, because it does. Obviously, leachate is part of fermentation of liquified food, but the dangerous part is that its mixed with hazardous chemicals you would not want to drink in your water (think: nail polish, even most facial cleansers, toilet bowl cleanser, window cleaner, etc. ad nauseum), and thus, cannot be re-entered into the useful Earth life cycle (i.e., feed your garden plants). 

What I Imagine Happens #2: My diligently rinsed and recycled plastic bottles, cans, newspapers, etc., all get melted down and turned into NEW plastic bottles that I can drink out of again with a minimum of energy, impact to the Earth, or waste products generated. I sometimes fantasized that maybe they just washed my bottles out really well and refilled them. 

What Really Happens: Recycling is limited in its capacity to reimagine new things. For example, a plastic bottle does not get recycled into another plastic bottle. Because of the way its made the first time, it can only be recycle in smaller pieces, like plastic wood or other things made from chopped up bits of plastic. Even paper is the same. If you recycle a piece of printer paper, it doesn’t become another piece of printer paper. It becomes perhaps a roll of toilet paper (shorter fibers), and then after that, its life cycle is over. Also sad is the enormous amount of energy that is actually required to produce new products out of old, which contributes to greenhouse gas accumulation. 

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Remember this? Turns out, there is a REASON they’re said in this order: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. Because reducing and reusing require way less energy and time and are much more effective than recycling. In other words, recycling is your last-ditch effort after reducing and reusing don’t work. And throwing away should be even further down the list! 

What I Imagine Happens #3 (last one, promise): Plastics I see floating along the side of the road, etc., are eventually degraded and go away. 

What Really Happens: Plastics don’t biodegrade. They PHOTODEGRADE which means that sunlight and the other elements break them down into smaller and smaller pieces (but they’re still there) until they become micro plastics, which are a huge problem in the oceans, where they eventually end up. We can’t really see these tiny plastics, but they have the capacity to absorb persistent organic pesticides (POPs, like DDT) and then they get swallowed by the fish we eventually eat. The danger is bioaccumulation, or the fact that these POPs are not easily absorbed or broken down by our bodies, and can accumulate to dangerous levels inside of us. Or, alternatively, birds and other wildlife eat or feed to their young small, brightly colored pieces of plastic confused as food and starve to death because they’re filled with plastic. 

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This extremely sad picture was taken by Chris Johnson on the Midway Atoll. Its a baby albatross with a stomach full of plastic. There were dozens of these that Chris Johnson surveyed. Not to mention whales washing ashore with stomachs full of cubic YARDS of trash. 

But Katie…what can I do???

Here’s a couple things to think about:

1. Start small. No need to go crazy (like I did) and ban plastics from the house. 

2. Think about composting. It’s surprisingly easy (see my post on vermicomposting, which can be done even in small apartment spaces), and all those food scraps get broken down. Your city probably even has free workshops on it. Mine does! (Here’s a small selection of metropolises that have them…this is just from a google search! Los AngelesNew York CitySeattleSan FranciscoPhoenixCincinnatiMiamiPhiladelphiaSan Diego - Vancouver…the list goes ON). 

3. Awareness. That’s the first step to anything (including admitting you have a problem, like an addiction to plastic). Become aware of what kind of trash you’re generating, and then you can dream up solutions from there. There is no right or wrong way to do any of this, Amy Korst says so! Consider a trash audit as a first step to really understanding what the bulk of your trash is and how you measure up to the American average of 4.33 pounds of landfill-bound trash A DAY. 

4. Understand the NEW 5 Rs for waste reduction: REFUSE – REDUCE – REUSE – ROT – RECYCLE. Refuse things you don’t need (like excess packaging). Reduce what you need or buy in your life. Reuse everything you can, either by reselling or giving it away, or repurposing it. Rot everything you can (from butter wrappers to dirty napkins!) in a compost pile. Recycle as a last resort, and take zero-waste for a spin! 

Stay tuned for my trash audit post in two days!! We’ve been collecting trash for a week, and we’re going to do the whole thing: spread it out, sort through it, weigh it. 

6 thoughts on “Landfill Ruminations

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