Our Hot Mess: It's a landfill out there

Have you ever received that one package in the mail that packages something the size of a golf ball in a refrigerator-worthy box? Or maybe you were given five napkins from the waiter when you asked for one. Regardless, it was too much. Too much packaging. Too much waste. Too much.

Our human footprint doesn’t stop at how much consume; the final impact we have lies in what discard. And brace yourself. I have a few shocking numbers. Americans generate an average of 1600 pounds of trash per person, per year. In 2006, our per capita trash disposal rate was 4.6 pounds per person per day, 65% residential and 35% commercial.

And these numbers mean nothing tangible to you. I get it. I’m sure very few of us actually think about where our waste will end up after we put it on the curb to be dealt with by large, noisy trucks on a Tuesday morning. So where does it go? 12.5 percent of the trash goes to be incinerated, 33 percent gets recycled, and a whopping 55 percent gets buried in landfills. If we factor in wastewater, Americans are up to a frightening 250 trillion pounds per year, and less than 2 percent of the total waste is recycled. The image below shows just how uncreative the U.S. is when is comes to waste management. And yes, I’m aware the percentages are different; various sources will fluctuate around those numbers. I was kind to the States.

So let’s talk about the 55 percent, the landfillers. Landfills, despite careful engineering, have harmful environmental impacts like leaking liquids into the groundwater. They’re also responsible for one-fourth of all methane - a potent greenhouse gas - released. At few and far between landfills, gas-to-energy projects are in place, capturing those gases to make energy.

Now your trash could also be incinerated, as it is at the Lancaster Solid Waste Management Authority. The trash gets burned and turned into ash that is typically put into landfills (but could also be used in roads and parking lots). Of course, as with any burning, there are toxic chemicals like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, both of which cause smog and acid rain. On the other hand, these incineration plants create electricity, nationally generating enough to power 2.3 million homes. That seems like a lot but only totals 0.3 percent of U.S. power generation.

And this brings us to recycling. Ah, the utopia of waste management. Of all of the garbage we Americans currently throw out, half of it could be recycled. Enough to completely fill a football stadium every day. And of those recyclables, we throw away enough aluminum to reconstruct the commercial air fleet every three months, enough steel to reconstruct Manhattan, and enough wood to heat 5 million homes for 200 years. Wow. Recycling does make a difference.

And then there’s the fact that waste disposal costs exceed $100 billion annually.

Alrighty then, how do you do it, how do you recycle? It seems like a silly question, but there’s quite a bit of confusion on the matter. Generally, in Lancaster, you can recycle clear, brown, and green glass bottles that are rinsed thoroughly and not necessarily removed of labels; steel and tin cans that are washed thoroughly; plastic bottles, only items with a “neck”; and newspapers and glossy inserts. All of these can go into the big green container. But what you don’t want to put in includes light bulbs, dishes, glassware, window glass, metal hangers, cooking pots/pans, foil/pie plates, plastic bags, toys, packaging, and the like. It may take a little while until sorting is second nature, but it’s worth it.

The even better alternative is cutting down on our waste in general. Buy in bulk. Buy items with less packaging. Buy fewer items online. Find clever ways to simply consume less. Challenge yourself or your family to only use X number of trash bags this week.

Remember, don’t be trashy!

--Elke Arnesen, LSNews.org Columnist

Edited: BP

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