Yesterday, as I took out my rubbish like a 'good citizen', I couldn't help but wonder where the random junk was actually going. I mean, yes, of course the collector shall arrive to whisk away the evidence in a timely fashion. Yet ironically, my thoughts of this encounter never extended beyond how annoying it is that the visits always coincide with the one morning I wish to sleep in.
So without further ado, let's get investigating. Take your fancy pants off, because you're about to be knee deep in a hole filled with old sh*t.
Worldwide, we generate about 1.2 trillion kilograms of garbage per year. Where do we put it all?
Here is a map that depicts global density of waste, per capita, indicating the highest waste generators in deeper shades of red. As you can see, places like the United States of America and Australia show obvious signs of prolific consumption. This has everything to do with culture and social norms.
Up until the 1970s, all of our waste would end up in a dump. That is, until the world cottoned-on that this is a truly terrible idea. Below is a list of differences between a dump and landfill.
- Dumps and landfills are both excavated pieces of land that store waste materials, yet the government regulates a landfill, whereas a dump is often smaller and locally run.
- A dump does not have a structure and system established to collect and treat leachate (a highly toxic substance that gathers at the bottom of the rubbish -- think bin juice, multiplied by 10 million). A landfill must have this system.
- Landfills must be adequately lined at the bottom (often a thick clay layer, covered by a plastic seal), to catch this bin juice. A dump does not have a liner, which has previously lead to catastrophic effects, polluting ground water in some localities (pressuring society to look at regulation and create a more feasible solution such as the landfill).
- After trash is emptied into these enormous holes in the earth, landfills are covered daily with soil to deter pests and prevent super stinky smells from being released into the air. Dumps may be covered, or not.
Although landfills present a far better alternative to the traditional dump, due to the nature of a landfilling environment, it is not conducive for decomposition.
We are putting synthetic materials in a synthetic enclosure, with the deluded hope that the enormous problem will simply disappear. Out of sight, out of mind.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The rubbish also leads to enormous production of methane, which is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide and causing 25 percent of man-made global warming emissions.
You would assume things like food waste will break down without an issue. This is, in fact, not the case. Due to the lack of appropriate microbes and nutrients waste rots, and some becomes practically mummified instead of decomposing naturally. This environment means the rubbish does not break down effectively. Therefore, estimations have been calculated to show just how long this rubbish can remain under the soil, down the road from us maintaining its original structural integrity.
Did you know that cigarette butts do not decompose for up to five years? Yes, they are basically made out of a chemical-soaked couch. Glass bottles can last up to 1 million years in landfill. Always recycle this awesome, durable resource. Ridiculous single-use plastic bottles last hundreds of years. Get yourself a water bottle, or, even better, use a recycled jar.
Plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose. Newer 'plant-based' plastic bags offer our conscience comfort, but if they end up in landfill these bags are not in the appropriate environment to decompose -- they need light and the intense heat of a commercial composter. Buy yourself a sturdy organic hemp material bag for the weekly shopping, or ask for an old box at the store. Better yet, use your hands.
Aluminium cans take up to 500 years to decompose in landfill. Most countries now support recycling of this material, so it shouldn't be too hard. Even an innocent newspaper can be mummified in unnatural landfill conditions. In 2008, a waste study unearthed a 1952 newspaper from an Arizona landfill that was still easily readable.
Considering some of these slightly absurd realities, it is not hard to understand why it is important to empower ourselves in stopping the illogical landfilling process. While you are at it, do a quick Google search of your local landfill... After all, it is both your bin and your backyard.
This post first appeared on August 24, 2016.