That’s Garbage: Talking Trash About Waste Generation


Trash.  We all generate it, but do we think about it other than to “take it out” weekly?

In Chicago we generate 657 pounds of trash per person every year.  According to the EPA, the US generated 251 million tons of trash in 2012 (thats Municipal Solid Waste alone).  For reference, that is 42 times more than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Ancient Trash Cities 

Speaking of the Egyptians, creating garbage is a universal human tendency dating back to our earliest records of civilization.  In fact .. weathered monuments aside,  our earliest records of civilization are just that … garbage.

According to self-styled Garbologist, William Rathje, “Throughout most of time human beings disposed of garbage in a very convenient manner; simply by leaving it where it fell.” (Rubbish!, p 32) but as we formed settled communities it began to pile up almost immediately.  In fact, people let the debris pile up right on their dwelling floors, occasionally covering it over with fresh dirt or clay – a practice which slowly but surely raised floors, houses, and eventually entire cities.  Again, Rathje (35):

“Over time the ancient cities of the Middle East rose high above the surrounding plains on massive mounds called tells, which contained the ascending remains of centuries, even millennia, of prior occupation.”

… and Modern Ones

Archaeologists traditionally  search through the layers of discarded materials to reconstruct the material lifestyles of the people who left them there.

Rathje applied that theory to a more modern site – the landfills near the University of Arizona in Phoenix where he taught Anthropology.  His program, the Garbage Project studied samples taken from local (and then national) landfills and examined their contents for clues to the hidden lives of their depositors.  He exposed both mis-information about people’s behavior (people consistently under-report the amount of alcohol they consume) and the way landfills operate (“Conventional wisdom held that much of the trash in landfills would quickly decompose. Instead, organic materials, like food and lawn waste, were found mummified in the airless depths of sanitary landfills.”

How Landfills Work 

Everyone can easily conjure up a worst case scenario of a landfill – an open pile of refuse drifting away on the wind and slowly (or not so slowly) leaking toxic chemicals into the ground water.

Modern landfills are carefully constructed, maintained and monitored undertakings with multi-layer liners to prevent leaking, tiered pipe systems which collect leachate (for processing) and methane for controlled burns (which can sometimes be used to produce heat or energy for local use – often through business/civic partnerships which help cover the startup costs), and layers of intermediate and then final over covering.  Probes throughout the system allow for monitoring to make sure leachate and methane levels are as expected.  As of July 2013, 621 Landfill Gas Energy programs were in place and generating the equivalent of power for 1.1 billion homes in America.

That’s certainly better … but is it good.  Our abundance of wide open spaces as a country has led us to accept as normal that there will always be a place to tuck away our trash.  As urban areas grow (and existing landfills are … filled), however, we are having to look farther afield for our trash solutions.  A little over a hundred years ago, Chicago was able to handle almost all of its urban trash inside the city limits – now we export it (hello, fossil fuels) to remote sites downstate and into Indiana.

chicago dump sites

New York City, surrounded by a dense urban and suburban population and generating 12,000 tons of residential trash a day, sends its garbage to landfills in distant states including Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia!  The cost of this re-location is estimated at $300 million per year.  

Waste-to-Energy Systems

There are alternatives to landfills, as a garbage solution.  Our midwestern neighbor, Minneapolis burns 365,000 tons of garbage for power which it sells to the local power company.  Operations like theirs are a far cry from torching a barrel of trash in a back yard but they can still make people feel un-easy.  The emissions from trash burning plants are regulated (complex scrubbing processes meet and exceed regulated standards).  The burnt residue (about 10% of the original volume) still has to be buried.  Detractors worry that emissions standards aren’t checking for all possible dangerous chemicals and that this technology may actually discourage recycling programs.  But this system seems more appealing the less room there is to dump – notably in Europe where countries like Sweden burn 49 percent of their waste (50% gets recycled).

Keeping Trash out of the Landfill … or Incinerator

Of course recycling our trash is preferable to burning or landfilling it.  And not generating trash in the first place is better still.  According to the EPA “34 percent [of MSP] is recovered and recycled or composted, about 12 percent is burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 54.3 percent is disposed of in landfills.”  This varies widely based on regional and local policies and programs but certainly we can do better across the board.

We’ll return to this subject soon to discus the benefits and possibilities of waste diversion programs AKA recycling, composting, reducing, and much much more.  

As always, share your thoughts now in the comments below! 

Note: landfill image via Estormiz on the wikimedia commons