Sunday, January 20, 2008

Landfills 101: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Paper or plastic? Which do you prefer? Which do you think is better for the environment? Unfortunately there have not been many studies on the subject, but most people think paper is the lesser evil because if it were to end up in a landfill it would degrade more quickly than plastic. But this isn’t true! Biodegradable wastes are only able to breakdown into harmless substances under normal environmental conditions. There is nothing normal or natural about a landfill.

I recently heard a discussion on NPR's KQED where scientists visited a landfill to sample its contents. They found perfectly preserved guacamole and lettuce from the 1970’s! Ugh. Think of all those food scraps you’ve thrown away in the past 30 years – they are still there. Landfills tightly seal in waste to protect the outside environment from contamination (thank goodness!) but, as a result, any biodegradation that does take place happens very slowly. In the absence of oxygen and moisture, bacteria must degrade landfill waste through anaerobic digestion which releases methane gas and carbon dioxide (which must be controlled and regulated by the landfill because of its explosive nature).

According to the EPA, in 2006 Americans generated 4.6 pounds of waste per person per day. This equates to 251 million tons of waste every year. 32.5% (or 82 million tons) of this waste was recycled or composted and 12.5% is burned. That means 55% of our waste goes directly to landfills. Much of that waste can and should be composted or recycled. For example, in 2000 only 2.6% of food waste was composted. You can help by composting and recycling in both your bathroom and kitchen.

I’m hoping to take a field trip to a Bay Area landfill and will report back on it as soon as I go. In the mean time, both the Environmental Protection Agency and How Stuff Works are great resources for learning more about our landfill and municipal solid waste systems. I believe understanding what happens to our trash after we dispose of it is an important step in reducing our waste and our consumerist habits. So think twice when you throw things in the trash, and the next time you’re at a store, don’t choose paper or plastic. Bring a cloth bag instead.

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