Wasting Our Garbage

Seven old tires are painted bright colors and stacked in a staggered arrangement.  They are full of soil and growing flowers.

When you hear the term “resource management”, I’m sure the first things that come to mind are trees, water, crops, soil… and more of the like. What probably doesn’t come to mind, is garbage. While most people consider garbage a nuisance, it is really just a mismanaged resource that we are not properly taking advantage of. Not only are we not utilizing garbage as a resource, but we are creating potential hazards via mismanagement. I am primarily referring to landfills. Originally, landfills weren’t much of an issue because people didn’t have so much stuff to throw away. The primary waste types were food scraps and cloth – not hazardous. However, with technological innovations, planned obsolescence, and a “throw away” fast paced society… our landfills now reflect a wasteful and rather careless society.

In the past, landfills were not regulated very stringently… if at all. During this ambiguous period, people could dump whatever they’d like into landfills. Who knows what else was buried in the ground. There are probably canisters rusting away in numerous landfills, just waiting to leak hazardous waste. There are already landfills that have become Superfund sites due to hazardous waste causing environmental and health issues such as the Lipari and Price landfills in New Jersey. Also due to lack of regulation, we had the Syringe Tides in New Jersey from 1987 – 1988. Rather than properly disposing of medical waste (such as syringes and bandages), workers of the Fresh Kills Landfill piled up medical supplies, and sent it out to sea along with raw garbage. Ocean currents pushed the waste south, eventually bringing syringes and other medical goodies to the Jersey Shore. The state of New York was forced to pay one million dollars in cleaning and pollution fines.

Let’s take a second and talk about the Fresh Kills Landfill. In Staten Island, NY, it was the third largest landfill in the world (behind the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Bordo Poniente Landfill in Mexico). Fresh Kills was the recipient of New York’s garbage from 1948 – 2001 and covers 2,200 acres (two and a half times the size of central park). While it has been closed for 13 years, it still produces enough methane gas to heat 30,000 homes daily (and will continue to do so for another 10 years). Luckily, each day eight million cubic feet of this landfill gas is harvested utilizing a network of wellheads. However, most landfills do not harvest the gas being emitted by any means. Globally, landfill methane emission contributions average between 10-19% of anthropogenic atmospheric methane. Here in the United States, we’re special (or at least we think we are). Annually, as much as 37% of anthropogenic methane emissions to the atmosphere come from our landfills because we aren’t creating the infrastructure necessary to utilize this gas as a resource.

Fresh Kills Landfill

When considering greenhouse gas emissions and landfills, we are only dipping our toes in the leachate. What we actually throw into the landfills is causing just as much of a problem. Single-use food and drink containers, layers and layers of packaging, phones that we just can’t live with after two years, that broken toaster that costs more to fix than to buy a new one, and even that old love poem from an ex partner… once it’s in the landfill it cannot be repurposed. We need to invest in a better system with more care taken to divert anything that can be from the landfill. To do this, we need politicians less concerned with not being re-elected due to a small jump in residents’ waste service provider bills. We need to exert political pressure so that regulations are drafted that incentivize both people and companies to make the transition to more sustainable practices.

I don’t have all the answers when it comes to the mismanagement of garbage. However, I do know that we need to focus on repurposing, improving our lifestyles to reduce waste at the source, and most of all, pressuring political officials to improve our waste infrastructure. Anaerobic digesters at all landfills would be a great place to start, as well as improved waste sorting and diversion systems across the United States.

When it comes to repurposing… it’s harder to think of limitations than it is to think of potential ideas. Here’s a few creative reuses…










Huler, S. (2010). On the grid. New York, NY: Rodale Inc.



Photo 1: http://indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats/grow-garbage-garden-ideas-repurposed-waste/

Photo 2: http://animalnewyork.com/2011/after-drugs-comes-dirt-the-retrospective/fresh-kills-landfill-staten-island-new-york-1992-photo-diane-cook-and-len-jenshel/

Photo 3: http://kraftykarina.blogspot.com/2013/07/from-old-refrigerator-to-ice-chest.html

Photo 4: http://www.environmentteam.com/list/40-innovative-and-frugal-ways-to-repurpose-trash-items/

Photo 5: http://www.gurukoala.com/2015/03/06/37-upcycled-repurposed-furniture-ideas/