Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tracing Your Trash

“…We don’t need a better way to get rid of things. We need to not get rid of things, either by keeping them cycling through the system—or by not designing and desiring them in the first place.”

On the whole, a little more than half of America’s household garbage goes to landfills. The rest goes to incinerators, recycling centers, or composting facilities.

While garbage pickup is generally organized by the local government, it changes hands at a transfer station and becomes the responsibility of private haulers, who are paid by the ton to take it away. Transfer stations are large warehouses where tons of garbage are dumped by collection trucks and repacked into trucks, barges, and rail cars for their journey to the landfill or incinerator. The garbage thrown away by city dwellers may travel to a distant landfill several states away—many solid waste companies have paid rural towns to landfill garbage from larger urban areas.At every step, trash headed for the landfill takes a toll on the environment. There is pollution generated by the fleets of diesel-powered trucks that transport it, and landfill gas, methane and carbon dioxide, and fluid that drains from the garbage. This liquid, known as leachate, is a toxic “juice” of the chemicals that erode off of electronics, pet waste, nail polish remover, food waste, cleaning products, batteries, and more.

Incineration- Despite the pollution and lack of popularity for incineration, 13 percent of America’s garbage is still burned. Modern-day incinerators are enormous columns the size of an office building, where thousands of tons of garbage a day burn at 3,000°F temperatures. Despite pollution controls, which recover some energy from the process, burning plastic still produces carcinogenic dioxin and leaves behind ash laced with heavy metals.

Recycling-There are 9,000 curbside recycling programs across the country, a growing number of which are “single stream” programs in which residents place empty glass bottles, aluminum cans, and plastic containers together in their bins. Bins are collected, and brought to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where creative mechanical processes like blasts of air and magnetized devices sort recyclables. Teams of workers do the remaining sorting manually.
Some materials are truly recyclable over the long-term, while others can only be diverted from the landfill once or twice. Glass and aluminum are perpetually recyclable, while paper can be “downcycled” several times into lower-grade products. Plastics can usually only be “downcycled” once into a different material that is not itself recyclable.

The markets for various materials fluctuate, and MRFs end up landfilling or incinerating some “residuals”—a share of whatever they collect that cannot by recycled or sold for recycling (some mixed plastics are sent to developing countries, especially in Asia, where they may be recycled, but are often burned or dumped unsafely.) For just about all materials, recycling waste into a new product saves significant energy over creating the material from scratch. 79 percent of all aluminum, 78 percent of glass, half of the paper, and 95 percent of plastic in household garbage was going out with regular trash, instead of being put into a recycling bin, according to the EPA in 2005.

“Garbage should worry us,” writes Elizabeth Royte in Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (Back Bay Books, 2006). “…We don’t need a better way to get rid of things. We need to not get rid of things, either by keeping them cycling through the system—or by not designing and desiring them in the first place.” –AMEN

There’s always composting!

Source: Joelle Novey, Co-op America

No comments: