Talking Trash

In February, Kai and I volunteered to participate in a study of local household waste.  The study, prompted by a co-worker’s desire to learn more about the local waste cycle and composting, and sponsored by the Chittenden Solid Waste District, required us to take a hard look at our consumption and waste.  Throughout the month, we measured what we threw into the trash, what we recycled, and what we composted (you can see our results in part 3 of this series of posts).  If you want a reality check on how much waste you produce, we recommend you do the same for at least one month.  In this series of posts, we’ll talk trash and discuss ways in which to minimize or eliminate waste.


Part 1First – the factsTotal MSW Generation by Material

Did you know that the top four things wasted in America are completely avoidable, recyclable or consumable?  Paper makes up a whopping 31% of our total waste!  Yard waste comes in over 13%.  Sadly, food is our third largest waste stream at almost 13% of our total waste and plastics account for another 12%.  Less than 3% of our waste is recovered or recycled, even though it could be recycled or even eliminated from the waste cycle altogether.

Here are some of the things that make up our daily waste:

Packaging = plastic wrap, plastic water bottles, blister packs, styrofoam, cardboard – anything that “packages” our products and food.

Products = electronics, toys, clothing, tools, utensils – anything that breaks, reaches the end of its usefulness, or that we tire of.

Food = unconsumed crops, meals we don’t finish at restaurants, food we buy from grocery stores but never eat.

Where does all that waste go?

All of this waste has to go somewhere and, although a small amount is recovered or recycled, most of it usually goes into landfills.  A byproduct of landfills is the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Anything that doesn’t hit the landfill is incinerated.  Byproducts of incineration includes the release of harmful, toxic emissions into our environment, regardless of our attempts at filtration.  Even if filters do capture some of the pollutants, where do we dispose of the filters?  You guessed it – “special” landfills.   Neither landfills nor incineration can keep up with the pace of our consumption.  That, coupled with our realization of the negative environmental and financial effects of either method upon our own health and well being, has resulted in a collective NIMBY mentality surrounding where to put our own waste.  Our disturbing solution to that problem : ship it somewhere else, preferably to a community that we can’t see, that doesn’t have the resources to prevent us from taking a crap in their backyard, and that has officials, governments or companies that appreciate a kickback that is substantially lower than the cost of keeping it in America.  Additional benefits include no pressure to stop over-consuming and no localized suffering of negative environmental or health factors.  View the following video by Frontline to understand where your “recycled” electronics actually end up and how they could be used against you:

It’s clear that reducing our waste, even minimally, would help the environment, save natural resources, save energy, and reduce disposal costs.  It would also save us tons of money individually, related to personal purchases and tax dollars we spend on disposing of and cleaning up the environmental affects of all that trash.  In addition, minimizing daily use of certain waste products, like plastic, could prevent negative affects upon our health.  So, the next logical question you might ask is:

How can I minimize my waste?

Good question!  We’ll offer ideas about how to minimize waste through every day action in our next post.

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