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Don't know where to start? Read about all the issues of waste here. Links to actions which relate to each issue can be found in orange.


"In 2008, the per capita generation of waste was 4.5 pounds per person per day, and total waste generation was 249.6 million tons" - EPA

The graphic to the right depicts the percentage of different materials which contribute to our daily waste stream in the United States. It is important to understand that this graphic represents percentages of materials that could be recycled or composted, but that the percentage of materials actually composted or recycled is often much lower.

The graphic is organized into three categories; non-recyclables, potential compostables and recyclables.


NON-RECYCLABLES

What many people may be surprised to hear is that non-recyclable waste is the smallest chunk of materials we are producing today at only 23% of the waste stream. Because many recyclable and compostable materials do not end up in recycling and compost bins, however, the percentage of actual waste is a much larger percentage. In this way, the statistic of 23% of our waste stream being non-recyclable waste is both hopeful and somewhat troubling. In an ideal world, we would be producing (and consequently throwing away) only materials which could be recycled or composted.

At least half of our non-recyclable garbage today is comprised of plastic (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Annually, the US produces 15 billion pounds of plastic. Since the 1950's, plastic usage has increased tenfold every decade so that in 2001 the average American used 223 pounds of plastic. It is estimated that our average yearly use today is 326 pounds. Every hour Americans use and discard 2.5 million plastic bottles, totaling 22 billion a year ($20 a Gallon, Christopher Steiner). This plastic is either land-filled, incinerated (releasing toxins) or is swept into water bodies, eventually ending up in locations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch-an area the size of Texas located west of Hawaii where ocean currents will hold it for millions of years (or more) until it gradually degrades (Steiner).

Plastic's benefits are also its downfall. It is one of the most durable materials known to man. Many types of plastics have yet to degrade and have half-lives of millions of years. According to www.greatgarbagepatch.org, "Every bit of plastic ever created still exists, except for a small amount that has been incinerated, releasing toxic chemicals." Durable and waterproof, many types of plastics are ideal material for weatherproofing buildings and can be found in almost all conventional building materials. What to do with all of this plastic once its useful life is over is a major problem to be considered. Many types of plastics, especially PVC which is a main plastic used for building materials, cannot be safely incinerated because of the toxins they will emit. In the same way, land-filling these plastics will ultimately result in toxins leaching into the soil and getting into precious fresh water supplies. Finding a way to contain this toxic, immortal material may be one of the only options for dealing with it safely.

RECYCLABLES

Of the 249.6 million tons of waste created each day in the United States, 33.2% (82.9 million tons) of this waste is recycled (EPA). While recycling is arguably much better than disposing of most materials, all materials, even those recycled, eventually end up in the waste stream themselves.

"Reduction, reuse, and recycling slow down the rates of contamination and depletion but do not stop these processes. Much recycling, for instance, is what we call 'downcycling', because it reduces the quality of a material over time. When plastic other than that found in such products as soda and water bottles is recycled, it is often mixed with different plastics to produce a hybrid of lower quality, which is then molded into something amorphous and cheap, such as park benches or speed bumps. The original high-quality material is not retrieved, and it eventually ends up in landfills or incinerators" (McDonough and Braungart, pg 4, 1998).

In addition, any kind of waste—packaging, recyclables and even organics which aren't composted—is part of a waste stream which must be transported using fossil fuel energy. The act of transporting this waste uses an enormous quantity of energy which is often a forgotten negative side effect of both waste and recycling.

A study from INFORM, Inc. in 2002 found that garbage trucks are among the oldest, least fuel-efficient, and most polluting fleet vehicles in the United States.

Some other major points of the study were:

  • - Forty-one percent of garbage trucks in use are more than 10 years old, nearing the end of their lifetime (12 to 14 years) and performing at reduced efficiencies. In addition, garbage trucks use more fuel than any other type of vehicle – averaging 8,600 gallons per year – except for tractor-trailers and transit buses (which use 11,500 gallons and 10,800 gallons on average per year, respectively).

  • - Garbage trucks in the US consume approximately 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually and get the lowest fuel efficiency (2.8 miles per gallon) of any vehicle type. Transit buses, single-unit heavy-duty trucks, and tractor-trailers get 2.9, 7.0, and 6.1 miles per gallon, respectively.

  • - Diesel garbage trucks are a major source of air pollution, including smog-forming compounds, particulate matter, and toxic chemical constituents.

  • - While heavy-duty diesel-powered vehicles, including garbage trucks, make up only 7 percent of vehicles on the road, they contribute 69 percent of on-road fine particulate pollution and 40 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions.

  • -There are more than twice as many garbage trucks in the US (179,000) as there are urban transit buses (82,600) (Inform, 2002).

  • Lastly, not all materials which are 'recyclable' are actually recycled. The percentage of materials which are actually recycled is as follows:

    • Auto batteries: 99.2%
    • Office Type Papers: 70.9%
    • Yard Trimmings: 64.7%
    • Steel Cans: 62.8%
    • Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans: 48.2%
    • Tires: 35.4%
    • HDPE Natural (White Translucent) Bottles: 29.3%
    • Glass Containers: 28.0%
    • PET Bottles and Jars: 27.2%

    • (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

For these reasons, recycling solves only some of our waste problems, and the real solution is to eliminate ALL waste.


COMPOSTABLES

Potential compostable materials include yard trimmings, food scraps and wood. Of these, yard trimmings are some of the only material currently composted at residences.

Composting food waste has a myriad of environmental benefits such as improving soil health and structure, increasing drought resistance as well as reducing and even eliminating the need for supplemental water, fertilizers and pesticides (EPA). Since the beginning, humans have been finding ways to facilitate this process. Even nomadic cultures did this (somewhat unknowingly) as they tended to leave organic wastes behind as they moved, restoring nutrients to the soil and the surrounding environment. Modern societies, however, simply want to get rid of waste as quickly as possible, leading to the massive amount of waste in accumulating in landfills each year. The potential nutrients in organic waste are lost when disposed of in landfills. Here, they can't be used to build up the nutrients in soil, and instead turn into a sludge under anaerobic conditions.

Man-made, synthetic materials cannot be digested by the earth the way natural materials can. Because of the complications of reusing synthetic materials, it is essential that we find ways to put our organic "waste" to good use.

While 64.7% of yard trimmings are composted, the remaining percentage of potentially compostable materials is typically land-filled. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have mandatory composting laws, but most municipalities do not have a system of composting set in place at this point. According to the EPA's Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 2007 Facts and Figures: "Over eight percent of the waste that each person generates each day could be recovered for composting. That works out to over 140 pounds per person, per year."

While plastic may be the most difficult type of waste to deal with in the long term, it certainly is not the only material which causes environmental damage. According to the EPA, Americans throw away more than 25 percent of the foods we prepare, about 96 billion pounds of food waste each year. This includes uneaten food and food preparation scraps.

There are several misconceptions about composting which are barriers to understanding the importance of this natural process, and the ease with which we could incorporate it into our lives:

  • Common Misconception #1- It doesn't matter if you compost because organics will just decompose in the landfill.
    Because landfills are so tightly packed with matter, they become anaerobic environments, turning any organic matter into sludge at best, or simply preventing decomposition entirely. Because of this, a banana peel that gets thrown away might as well be a milk jug because it isn't going anywhere. On top of this, the decomposition of food and other organic waste materials under anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide. When composting, on the other hand, aerobic bacteria manage the chemical process by converting the inputs into heat, carbon dioxide and ammonium. The ammonium is further refined by bacteria into plant-nourishing nitrites and nitrates.
  • Common Misconception #2- Compost will accumulate and I have no where to put it!
    Worms in a worm composting bin have the ability to moderate their population to eat as much waste as added during a given period of time, keeping the compost from accumulating. More food=more worms; less food=less worms. The compost becomes a dense, nutrient-rich mixture which is perfect organic fertilizer for indoor plants or to use in a backyard garden in the spring.

THE END GOAL

"In the process of nature there is no throwing away."
-Campbell, Let it Rot

The ultimate 'end-goal' of all the actions within this waste section is to move towards creating lifestyle habits which essential create 'no waste.' In this case, waste is defined as any material which requires fossil fuels to transport, process or landfill it after its useful life. This means that any item, whether compostable or recyclable is considered to be waste if it is thrown into a trash bin or down a garbage disposal. In addition, this definition classifies recyclables as waste due to the necessary energy it takes to transport and process them after their useful life. While recycling is currently certainly a better option than disposing of material, the ultimate goal would be to not create this waste in the first place. Thus, this ambitious 'end goal' action focuses on attempting to eliminate all materials which are considered waste according to this definition.

There are many small steps which make up a larger goal of eliminating waste entirely. The following actions combine many smaller actions outlined previously in this section to create a goal of eliminating all landfill waste, and eliminating ALL waste during the duration of the project. All three categories of waste are addressed; Non-recyclable waste, recyclable waste and composting.