Why You Make Too Much Trash

by Joseph Cho on February 17, 2014

1102650_2834550383016_4829558_oAbout Me: My name is Joseph Cho. I am a senior at Boston University majoring in Health Science. I have a serious addiction to Korean food, ice cream, smoking, and lounging about listening to all kinds of music. I would like to believe I am a quirky mix of optimism, cynicism, pessimism, weirdness and passion for making the world a better place.

 

 

 

 

Living in an apartment with three other college-aged guys has taught me one important lesson: people produce disgusting amounts of trash. As each day passes by I witness the vile hands of black plastic trash bags and empty blue pasta boxes spread across the floor. Toxic dishes stack themselves, starting from the sink and eventually reaching out to nearby tabletops. Even the clothes begin to develop a familiar, masculine musk. Who has time to fit chores between hectic exam cram periods, weekend parties (and weekday), late night work shifts, and boyfriend/girlfriend duties?

Everyday Americans collectively produce a tremendous amount of trash. In 2008 it was estimated each person produces about 7.1 pounds of solid waste. Consider the 313 million Americans that live today, and you have a total of 2.22 billion pounds of trash being produced every day! However, my personal experience has taught me that the larger the number, the more abstract it becomes. The more abstract the idea becomes, the less likely I am to understand. So think of it this way: The average blue whale weighs about 100 tons. Since there are 2,000 pounds in each ton, that makes each whale worth about 200,000 pounds. Assuming Americans like to throw trash out in quantities of blue whales, it can be estimated America tosses out 10,650 blue whales of garbage.

whale

Let me say that again. 10,650 blue whales. Everyday.

10,650 blue whales of garbage every day is going to create problems. Some issues to consider are pollution of local environment such as groundwater and aquifers, residual soil contamination, off gassing of methane from decaying organic waste, and harboring a wide variety of disease vectors. Landfills biggest problems take the form of toxic leachate.

Leachate can refer to any liquid that passes through matter while absorbing its extracts, solutes, suspended solids, or any other material that waste provides. Landfills provide plenty of components for water to absorb and become problematic. Water itself helps decompose organic materials by promoting bacterial and fungal growth. These microbes release by-products from decomposition reactions which quickly deplete oxygen from water, raise its temperature, release more water further increasing the volume (a snowball effect if you will) and acidify the pH value. When water attains a sufficiently low enough pH value it can dissolve metals, react with normally nonreactive compounds. Leachate generally takes the appearance of a brown/black, foul-smelling liquid. Science has developed many ways of dealing with leachate. However in the rare cases it spreads into groundwater and local soil, elevated levels of sickness and unsanitary water typically result.

The scope of America’s trash isn’t just limited to a national level. American’s constitute about 5% of the world’s population. Yet we single handedly produce more than a quarter the world’s garbage. Urban areas have the biggest trouble managing trash production. For example, New York City’s landfill called Fresh Kills Landfill has so much trash that it is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. Other urbanized nations have been forced to curb trash production for the sake of space. In Japan the average individual produces 2.5 pounds of trash, a staggering difference from America’s 7.1 pounds. Singapore has gone so far as to label littering as a form of criminal activity that is associated with $1,000 in fines and forced community labor. While there are obvious cultural, economic, and territorial differences between the two hemispheres, it goes to show how far other countries go to curb garbage relative to the U.S.

trash

Imagine this. From space. Fresh Kills Landfill.

America’s huge amount of territory is both a blessing and a curse. Territory is a blessing in that there are already three reserve landfills estimated to last us 2,000 years. If we need more space, we simply dig up another hole. However territory is a curse because it lures us into a false sense of security that we can continue wasting away. It prevents us from asking question such as “just how effective can recycling trash be” or “in what ways can we mitigate the amount of trash we produce?” The answers to these questions are closer than most of us think.

In 2005 one of the biggest industries in the United States announced a zero waste policy by 2025. In an effort to reduce waste the company started to buy items with less packaging, recycled all used packaging instead of throwing it away, resold recycled compost, gave away expired foods to wild animal parks, donated food and refrigerators to Feeding America that would have otherwise gone to waste, and cutback on plastic bags among other things. Some of the figures that began popping up were staggering. A total company waste reduction of 80%. Locally grown produce expanded by 97%. $1 billion dollars to customers saved on fresh fruits and vegetables. Within nine years Walmart has made solutions that ease environmental pressure, solved distribution problems, and created profit in the process. If a company as big as Walmart can do it, why can’t other companies follow suit?

Mitigation of waste includes both environmental and fiscal responsibility. In a capitalist nation fueled by money and the perfect competitive market, it is easy to focus on what is to be profited instead of what is to be lost. Moral values such as remaining environmentally friendly rarely hold strong in the face of wealth and greed. However, whatever it is humans are able to reap from this planet is only finite. It would be prudent for our future as a species to treat it as such.

 

Sources:

http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/06/04/how-americas-trash-became-a-worldwide-problem-an-interview-with-garbology-author-edward-humes/

http://curiosity.discovery.com/question/america-produce-trash

http://www.hotelclub.com/blog/singapore-weird-laws/

http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2011/03/21/behind-scenes-look-walmarts-zero-waste-program

http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2012/04/16/how-much-difference-can-walmart-make

http://images.nymag.com/news/features/freshkills081201_1_560.jpg

http://jre1.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/blue-whale-stats.jpg


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Brittany Mortera February 21, 2014 at 11:26 pm

Joe,
Your whale analogy was definitely an eye opener for the amount of trash we produce everyday. I personally forgot and was somewhat ignorant to the fact that we produce so much trash that it takes a huge toll on our environment! Your statement on America’s large territory being a blessing and a curse was chilling because it’s true. We keep pushing these questions out of our sight and won’t pay attention to these issues until last minute, where the problem becomes a near crisis.
Hopefully, people and companies will start becoming more aware of the effects of waste on the environment, and policy makers will do more in implementing stronger policies towards regulating it.

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