Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Really Happens To Your Trash

When most people take their trash to the curb, they don’t think twice as to where their trash goes or what becomes of it, as long as the smell is away from them. Although we have come a long way in dealing with our trash, there are still many problems with the current way we deal with our waste.

1. As of 2007, 55% of all of United States trash was dumped into landfills. One positive of today’s landfills is that they are located near and around clay earth which acts as a natural buffer between the landfill and the environment. Today’s landfills are also lined with plastic and the leachate, the liquid waste, is pumped to the surface where it is treated. Also the dump is covered everyday with earth to control vermin and odor (NEEDP). However, according to a statement by the EPA,

"First, even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent improvements in MSWLF containment technologies suggest that releases may be delayed by many decades at some landfills. For this reason, the Agency is concerned that while corrective action may have already been triggered at many facilities, 30 years may be insufficient to detect releases at other landfills.”

As I see it, the first problem with today’s trash is that there is just too much of it. We need to reduce, reuse, and recycle instead of continuing down the path of wastefulness to which American people have become accustomed.

2. In both today’s and yesterday’s landfills, there is a lack of biodegradation. Since most landfills are trying to make trash take up as little space as possible, the trash becomes extremely compacted, thereby creating an anaerobic environment which does not lend itself to easy biodegradation (West). When William L. Rathje, Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona, learned that no one had ever dug into a landfill, he created the Garbage Project, and after digging into the heaps, found newspapers from the late 1970’s that were still readable, green grass clippings, a T-bone steak with lean meat and fat, and five hot dogs that looked better than the steak. The biggest finding of the Garbage Project was what composed the majority of the landfill, namely not the Styrofoam, diapers, and fast food packaging that many Americans thought, but paper (NEEDP).

Again, this problem can easily be solved. In today’s digital world there should be a substantially smaller need for actual newspapers, and newspaper recycling needs to be a harder pushed topic of discussion. A posible alternative to landfilling paper is to use it to produce energy.

3.There are new horizons for our trash. Due to the realization that anaerobic conditions are hindering the degradation of trash, some landfills are now injecting water, oxygen and even microbes into the trash. Unfortunately, these facilities are expensive to build and have therefore not caught on. A practice that has caught on, however, is the development of landfills setting aside space where compostable materials, food scraps, yard clippings, etcetera, can compost. This is called a bioreactor. Many analysts believe that 65% of trash is biodegradable and can be used as a new source of income for the landfill, namely rich topsoil (West). Another type of bioreactor is one that continues to use the anaerobic conditions, but pumps the leachate over the trash again and again, helping the biodegradation process. Due to the anaerobic conditions, the waste is broken down to create methane gas, an odorless and colorless gas which can be used to produce energy. In 2003, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative began collecting methane gas from three landfills. Enough methane was produced to generate 8.8 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 7,500-8,000 homes. This also lowers the cost of the landfill by reusing the leachate instead of treatment or shipping out of the liquid. After an EPA investigation, it was determined that every state had at least one landfill that could produce methane gas for energy use, with California having 73 followed by Illinois with 36 and Michigan with 27 (NEEDP).

works cited
National Energy Education Development Project (NEEDP), Museum of Solid Waste, 2006 US EPA Federal Register, Aug 30, 1988, Vol.53, No.168, Larry “Do Biodegradable Items Really Break Down in Landfills? Most Landfills Too Tightly Packed to Work Well”
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1 comment:

Land Source Container Service Inc. said...

It makes you wonder if we should bother with cleaning up landfills, having nowhere to put the biproduct of the garbage. Wherever we go, we leave a trail.

-Land Source Container Service, Inc.
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