Where Trash & Recycling Actually Goes
A lot happens when you can’t see it. Waste moves. It moves out of your trash can, into the big trucks and then what? Where does it go? It’s easy to say that those questions aren’t relevant. It’s easy because we aren’t required to stare the impacts our waste produces right in the face. The gravity of each individual impact is always unknown. Where the trash that we produce ends up is unseen in our own eyes. Because of this, our waste disposal system creates room for naivety. Only in full knowledge and understanding can we begin to transition towards pivotal change. This is EXACTLY why we participate in the global challenge, Futuristic February, where you collect our non-perishable trash/recyclables for the entire month of February to get an estimate of how much waste you are accumulating/contributing to the landfills!
Landfills are the most commonly used and regulated systems of waste disposal. They’re holes, of a large size, dug into our Earth and lined with either clay or plastic. This lining separates the waste from the land. Each day, collected trash is disposed of inside these holes and covered with additional soil. The intention of this process is to conceal the waste until it naturally decomposes. A process that could take a few months or, in the case of some materials, hundreds of years. In the United States alone there are two thousand active landfills holding—but more alarmingly—hiding our waste. We say alarming because the action of hiding our waste is merely masking a very present issue. Not only is that waste still existent, but it is also requiring land that could otherwise be used for fruitful purposes.
Similar to landfills, dumps are holes burrowed deep in the ground. These holes are also meant for holding waste; however, they are not covered. The waste continues to pile on top of itself without protection against or separation from the surrounding environment. The problematic nature of this disposal method is its accessibility to nearby animals and lack of separation from the Earth. Animals that find these piles of waste typically live close in order to have a steady source of food. The issue here is the potential to consume something chemically tainted along with the food—jeopardizing their health and ultimately, their life. The main concern with the waste touching the soil is the possibility that some items thrown away could leak toxic matter, contaminating the neighboring environment.
Incineration is an alternative to waste burial; however, not an exceptionally beneficial one. Incineration suggests the burning of trash for waste elimination. While it sounds effective, the side effects of this method are remarkably destructive. Incineration of materials leads to the emission of greenhouse gases including CO2, N2O, NH3 and many others in great amounts. For reference, “the incineration of 1 MG of municipal waste in MSW incinerators is associated with the production of about 0.7 to 1.2 Mg of carbon dioxide output” (US). These emissions contributing further to atmospheric pollution and eventually, global warming.
Recycling centers are a step in the right direction. They sort the given trash and separate it into categories for manufacturers to purchase. Once a manufacturer is in possession of materials, they break them down into rawer, more workable forms of that material to create new products. The brilliant thing about recycling centers is their ability to create something new out of a used item that would have otherwise been buried or burned. Nonetheless, reinventing those materials consumes a massive amount of energy, leaving a footprint. Along with deliberate waste disposal, there are a few ways that waste sneaks into our environment, creating harm, unintentionally.
Waste is universally known to litter the streets. No matter if it was blown out of a public trash can or purposefully dropped on the ground. Keeping your eyes open as you walk through cities, towns and even areas of nature can reveal this. However, what many typically don’t understand is where that trash ends up. While it could remain scattered across our land, it also possibly could not. During severe weather scenarios, such as rain and wind storms, this trash has the potential to blow into drainage systems leading to rivers and oceans. Once it makes its way into bodies of water, it is likely, especially if it is plastic, to either become tangled around or ingested by aquatic life in the proximity. This causing suffocation, starvation and/or drowning of fish, seabirds, turtles and other marine mammals (“Plastic”). Waste does not wash into our oceans to disappear—it continues to endanger the life of those inhabiting its water.
The bottom line is just that—that waste doesn’t vanish entirely the moment you throw it away. It persists. It infiltrates itself into every pillar of our world. The repercussions of its pollution are detrimental to not only our home but also ourselves. This is what makes a zero-waste lifestyle so notable. Zero-waste means mitigation. It means protection against further harm inflicted on ecosystems. It encompasses a lifestyle removed from a debilitating and repetitive cycle. But more than that, living zero-waste allows you to exercise your ability to do something good in the midst of a global crisis.