“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
This was a phrase I heard often when people described the pervasive trash problem we have. And for the first 20+ years of my life, it was true to me. Whenever I opened my individually wrapped ice-cream bars and threw the crinkly plastic into the trash can, I never once questioned what really happened to it. I always knew it was going to the landfill, but I never really cared to think more about it.
But the effects of our apathy are getting harder and harder to ignore. The changing weather, the stronger storms and fires wrecking havoc on our communities. The growing number of photos of plastics choking our oceans and wildlife. The stark image of starving polar bears. Our home is now deteriorating around us and changing faster than we can adapt. We don’t have the convenience to turn a blind eye anymore. We don’t have the time.
As I ate my breakfast this morning and watched the zest spray as I peeled the outer skin of my clementine, I wondered what really happens to this peel once I throw it away into my trash bag? Well, to the landfill of course! But then what? What exactly was a landfill anyway?
What did it look like?
How do Landfills Work?
Modern landfills are meant to store (and hide away) millions of tons of trash. To protect the groundwater from being infected by the waste, each landfill is first lined with clay and then a thinner layer of plastic along with pipes whose sole purpose is to collect contaminated fluid called leachate that trickles down. This fluid is then treated the same as waste water from sewage. Trash from our communities is then dumped into the site and layered with dirt or some other material every couple of days.
Once the landfill is full, it is covered in clay and another layer of plastic. Then some more dirt and grass to make it look as pleasing at possible. Essentially landfills are sealed, oxygen-free areas where your trash goes to be silenced.
Now here was where I was confused. How can a landfill be in a sealed, oxygen-free environment, when I obviously see videos of trucks hauling trash in a pile in those landfill videos they always shoot?
So the way that works is when trash is delivered by the trucks, they put it in an area called the ‘open cell’, which is the only part of the landfill that is visible at the surface which is then pushed into the compactor. The compactor presses the trash together to get rid of as much oxygen as possible (think air sealer).
Why are Landfills Harmful to our Environment?
Because of the lack of oxygen, bacteria in the landfill eats away at the waste and produces methane gas instead of CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) which is highly flammable and hugely contributes to global warming.
Methane is actually 20 times more damaging to our home than CO2 because it is better at trapping heat.
Landfills will capture this gas and either vent it into the air directly or collect it to sell as energy fuel, which will then be burned, which produces CO2 and vent that into the air.
All that lack of oxygen, microrganisms, heat, and light in these tightly compacted landfills also leads to extremely slow decomposition times of the items inside.
Well how slow is slow though?
Insanely Slow Decomposing of Trash
Lets go over some terminology first, because I get confused all the time what the difference between some of these ‘break down’ terms are.
- Degradable/Decomposable — item can break down with or without microorganisms (the most general term)
- Biodegradable — item can be processed by microorganisms, and return to nature within a reasonable amount of time like a year or so
- Compostable — item is biodegradable, but also returns nutrients to the Earth
Writers and official gets these terms mixed up all the time even though they mean very different things. So always be wary of what a company means when it says it’s product is ‘biodegradable’, or ‘Compostable’
Let’s look at some stuff we can find in a landfill and how long it really takes to generally break down:
- Plastic Bottles = 450 years
- Plastic Bags = 10-20 years
- Other plastics = up to 1000 years (this is a guesstimate because scientists really don’t know, they haven’t seen plastic truly, fully biodegrade)
- Disposable Diapers = ~450 years
- Aluminum cans = 200-800 years
- Glass = a million years or infinity ( as some claim it can’t be decomposed at all)
- Paper waste = 2-6 weeks
- Food Waste = months or more depending on food
Infographic created by saveonenergy: https://www.saveonenergy.com/material-decomposition/
The problem is that because the items are compacted, older items are almost preserved in a way. A landfill study doneby University of Arizona researchers, “uncovered still-recognizable 25-year-old hot dogs, corncobs and grapes in landfills, as well as 50-year-old newspapers that were still readable.”
And these are just some of the materials found in landfills. Isn’t it insane?
With every piece of trash we throw in the landfill, it basically just stays put for hundreds of years without moving. Imagine all the cups, utensils, wrappers you’ve thrown away today and multiply that for every day you have been alive alive, and then multiply that by every person in your city, your county, your state.
How long can this go on before we run out of space?
Before our home becomes suffocatingly impacted by the trash we consume?
Before we emit so much methane into the environment that it changes our temperatures to unlivable conditions and strengthens our storms which weakens our towns, taking lives along the way.
Every small action we take has snowballed into the world we have today and we can’t afford to be ignorant anymore. We can’t afford to let our desire for convenience destroy us. This is our home that is choking on our trash.
But What About the Alternatives?
More than half of our waste is still being tunneled into our community landfills and if we don’t change our habits it will destroy us. This is way too much. We need to funnel our trash to other sources, like:
- composting facilities
- community garden composting
- recycling centers
“If not now when? If not us, who?”
The time for action is now.
I know it can be overwhelming to hear about all the issues of our world pertaining to the environment.
I am with you.
I get overwhelmed all the time too. I wonder, “how I can make an impact?”
And for now, I believe the biggest impact we can make is to change ourselves and our habits.
Do not pick up that plastic bag with your groceries, get a reusable one instead. Do not get that straw with your drink at the restaurant. Do not buy the things you do not need. Small daily habits caused our trash problem, and now it can be used to reverse it.
As I go along my journey to reduce the amount of waste I produce, I want to know your stories too. How you are changing your daily habits to help save our home?