Waste Nation: Reflections on Solid Waste Management
Updated: Oct 29
Did you know that in the US, on average, each of us produces 4.4lbs of trash every day? That is equivalent to 267.8 million tons of trash per year on a national level (1 ton= 2000lbs) (EPA, 2017). In case you, like me, have trouble visualizing what a number that big means, just imagine this:
One Toyota Tundra weights 2.84 tons. So, nationally, we produce 94,295,774 Toyota's worth of trash every year.
With this number, we are among the top producers of waste per capita in the world. Such a fact is not really surprising, as more developed countries tend to have higher levels of consumption, resulting in more solid waste. The US, Canada and the Bermudas alone, for example, account for over 14% of global waste, despite being the smallest region considered in the data by a World Bank Study.
The real question, however, is where that waste goes. In the United States, we are fortunate to have municipal waste management systems that literally make our garbage “out of sight, out of mind.” The average person is able to throw their trash in the trash can, take it out once a week, and have it disappear. According to data from the EPA, only about 34.5% of the waste we produce is either composted or recycled. The rest mostly goes to landfills, with a small percentage of it (12%) being composted in new “energy recovery” programs.
Landfills, though managed better now than at their inception in the 1930’s, are contentious. They can be sources of greenhouse gases like CO2, methane, and water vapor, exacerbating the effects of climate change worldwide and affecting the health of local communities. In the US, there are over 2000 active landfills, with many others full to capacity and covered up. Many of us live closer to one than we might think, and some have even been restored into wildlife sanctuaries or public parks. Plans from the EPA and other waste management companies are underway to develop better technologies and methods for waste disposal, but the bottom line is that a lot can be done by consumers alone.
The total amount of waste that ends up in landfills is over 40% less than it was in the 1960’s, when the EPA started keeping a record. This reduction is due to widespread adoption of recycling programs across municipalities, and even through composting. Still, over 22% of our trash is made up of food waste. Imagine taking out 22% of everything in your fridge and just throwing it out, day after day. Even a little bit starts to add up.
The solutions, however, are abundant.
We could start by being mindful of our consumption. If you’ve been on the internet, you’ve probably heard of the zero waste movement. Zero waste is an attempt at reducing our environmental footprint, and though it can be taken up as a lifestyle by individuals, it is conceived of as a systems shift towards a more sustainable production process. Basically, it means that companies should decrease the amount of waste they produce in the process of making a product. For our purposes, it can mean trying to be more conscientious of what we buy, staying away from single use plastics and extraneous packaging. If, overall, we reduce the amount we consume, our waste can also go down. Just think about how many cardboard boxes from Amazon we all probably have in our homes!
Being mindful of our consumption also extends to food. If, instead of buying anything that catches our fancy only to let it go bad in our fridge, we bought produce more mindfully, we would be able to get through more of the things we buy before throwing them in the trash.
A great step, if one is able, is to compost food waste! Some areas have organizations like Black Earth Compost that will pick up our compostable waste and process it in large facilities, effectively turning food waste into healthy soil and mitigating the amount of greenhouse gases produced. If you do not have a composting system you can sign up for, you could consider creating your own compost. Plenty of resources exist online to cater a composting system to your own needs, and we will explore more about this topic later on through the blog. But if something as large scale as compost is hard to wrap your head around, another nifty alternative is to use vermicomposting.
Vermicomposting is the use of worms to break down food waste. Worms can be stored in small bins under the sink, are nondescript, and very efficient at turning food waste into a nutritious soil amendment. At our site in North Shore Montessori School, we will be using compost and vermicompost to teach elementary school students about the importance of sustainable waste management. We will be documenting that process here, on the blog, so we invite you to stay tuned and do some of your own research!
Remember, it’s up to us to take our community’s health into our own hands, and those changes start with our own behavior. Working towards environmental sustainability is both a long process and a privilege. Hopefully, if we embark on it together, if we troubleshoot and share, we can make some great things happen.
Land of Waste: American Landfills and Waste Production. (n.d.). Save On Energy. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.saveonenergy.com/land-of-waste/
Jennings, R. (2019, January 28). Zero waste: how the movement aims to reduce plastic pollution - Vox. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/1/28/18196057/zero-waste-plastic-pollution
US EPA. (n.d.). About the Managing and Transforming Waste Streams Tool: A Tool for Communities . Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://www.epa.gov/transforming-waste-tool/about-managing-and-transforming-waste-streams-tool
National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling | Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling | US EPA. (2017). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials
Leahy, S. (2018, May 18). How Zero-Waste People Make Only a Jar of Trash a Year. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/05/zero-waste-families-plastic-culture/#close