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/


Greenwashing: Contaminating Our Consumption


Greenwashing is the practice of making products seem more environmentally friendly than they are, via advertising and misleading product labels. Terms such as “natural” and “green” have essentially lost their meaning due to many companies’ misuse of them on labels. Unfortunately, the practice of greenwashing is causing consumers to pay more money for products they believe to be healthier and more sustainable, when in reality they’re no better than conventional products.

RAID - Raid Earthblends Multibug Killer - 258949 - Home Depot Canada

“It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”

There are a few different tactics that can be utilized when it comes to greenwashing our products. Often, companies will claim that a product is “green” based on just a few relatively sustainable characteristics, without taking into account the rest of the manufacturing process. Other popular gambits include: irrelevant claims (such as “CFC-free” – CFCs are illegal anyway), making claims in order to distract from the greater environmental impacts, and outright lying.

If you’re curious about a product’s claims to sustainability (e.g. tissue products claiming that a percentage of the product is post-consumer recycled content), look into the product and see if you can find evidence to back these claims. There are plenty of products on the market with no proof.

On a personal note, I’ve been using Organix shampoo for years. Until recently, I actually thought it was organic (hah!).

While it has “sustainable” packaging and doesn’t contain sulfates… there’s plenty that makes Organix shampoo just as damaging as conventional shampoos.  This product line contains a plethora of synthetic ingredients that are linked to chemicals that have been associated with early onset of puberty, obesity, and some cancers; they can also provoke allergic reactions and asthma attacks.

So what do you do? Most importantly, read the ingredients of the products you purchase. If it’s claiming to be “natural” yet you cannot pronounce most of the ingredients, I’d look for an alternative. Research products beforehand if you can. If you’re curious whether or not a product of yours has been greenwashed, check this website:   http://www.greenwashingindex.com/ads/








Universities and Waste Reduction

Universities across the nation should pursue every feasible avenue available to reduce waste, specifically at university events. The U.S. recovers less than 20% of this waste, and consumption is only rising. While there are many campuses focused on sustainability, there needs to be a nationwide effort at all colleges to create campuses that divert increased amounts of waste from landfills. An excellent example of a college making its events more sustainable is Middlebury College. About 70% of their food waste is composted through a collaborative effort between Dining Services and Facilities Management. At outdoor events this figure increases to 90%.

My question: why aren’t more universities attempting to make their campuses and campus events more sustainable?

I believe it’s safe to say that at many universities there is not a lack of interest in more sustainable practices and facilities. However, there is a lack of cooperation regarding administration. Furthermore, there is a more fundamental issue: funding. When thinking about sustainable measures, students tend to think big. Good examples would be proposing to use the elliptical machines to generate electricity, retrofitting inefficient water fixtures, or to install solar panels. While these are good ideas that would no doubt be effective, many students don’t understand the process. Many possible implementations are expensive, with adequate returns on the investment coming quite a few years later. This is generally not attractive to schools with strict budgets, which is basically all schools. The measures that many schools could probably afford to implement, such as putting on window films (to reduce solar heating of rooms where it is unwanted), aren’t as “sexy” and won’t do much in the way of publicity, which is usually a consideration of school administrations.

I also believe that there are many students who might be putting too much faith in the system. For example, compostable tableware. School events utilizing compostable tableware usually do not divert these products from the landfill by composting these products because what they were really created to do is biodegrade. While this is a step in the right direction, I’m sure many students believe their “compostable” utensils and plates are actually composted.

Sources: http://www.middlebury.edu/sustainability/food/dining/waste



Photo: http://crave-catering.com/austin-weird-wednesdays/img_0315/

High School Education: Up A Blind Alley

I went to high school in an area that was not particularly keen on sustainable practices or ecological woes. The school required the usual science courses such as anatomy, biology, and chemistry… however, they did not require any course related to environmental studies or environmental science. The only class I took related to environmental issues was an ecology class, which I had chosen to take as an elective. That one ecology class made an unmistakable impact on me as it further encouraged me to major in environmental studies. However, many of the students I graduated with had little to no knowledge of environmental issues and many didn’t even recycle. 

All high schools across the country should have an environmental science course included in the required curriculum. Studies consistently show that when integrated into the core curricula or used as an integrating theme across the curriculum, environmental education increases student engagement in learning, improves student achievement and raises test scores (plt.org). Students in the United States are quickly falling behind students of other countries, not just in math and basic science, but in understanding and awareness. By not integrating environmental studies into the required curriculum, we are raising a generation of oblivious consumers. Not only are we consuming a shameful amount of resources, but we waste an unnecessary amount as well. If high school students are better educated to understand the products they buy as well as the manufacturing process that puts those products in their hands, it is likely that they will waste less and recycle more. Perhaps they won’t buy so many unnecessary things as well. 


Sources: https://www.plt.org/who-we-are



Garbage to Grid: The Power of Methane

In 2011, Americans generated about 250 million tons of trash (epa.gov); landfills, composting and incineration produced about 122 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (wasterecyclingnews.com).  There is already an existing technology, anaerobic digesters, that can take gases emitted from landfills and turn them into an energy source. Currently, other countries such as Sweden, Germany and Switzerland are utilizing a technology that can turn greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by landfills into an energy source.

Through anaerobic digestion, a biological process, gas principally composed of methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) are produced from organic wastes such as livestock manure, and food processing waste (consumerenergycenter.org). Anaerobic digestion is a carbon-neutral technology that produces biogases that can be used for heating, generating electricity, mechanical energy, or for supplementing the natural gas supply. In 2010, 162 anaerobic digesters generated 453 million kWh of energy in the United States in agricultural operations, enough to power 25,000 average-sized homes (c2es.org).

As our atmosphere becomes increasingly burdened by fossil fuel emissions, human health and adequate air quality are becoming more threatened than ever before. Globally, we need to pursue every feasible avenue available in order to reduce anthropogenic sources of GHGs. As it is, we may already be at the point of no return due to how long certain gases remain in the atmosphere (such as CO2, which can remain in the atmosphere for more than 100 years after being emitted). Not only do these GHGs cause numerous negative health effects from asthma to lung cancer, but they contribute to the heating of the earth. To put it simply, GHGs act like a blanket. The more GHGs that are added to the atmosphere, the thicker the blanket gets, the warmer our planet gets.

If the anaerobic digesting technology was implemented at all landfills nationwide, we would not only reduce GHG emissions, but also take advantage of a more sustainable energy source. While it would initially present a considerable cost to build digesters at landfills nationally, they would eventually pay for themselves ten-fold by further distancing our societal structure from ecologically and financially expensive fossil fuels.

Sources: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/nonhaz/municipal/index.htm




Photos: http://anthonysarnoski.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html


Consumerism: Got Awareness?

Developed countries, particularly the United States, are essentially responsible for resource depletion and a great deal of pollution. Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times (cleanair.org). We also throw away about 40% of our food (washingtonpost.com). Over the course of my career, I’d like to find ways to reduce waste and raise awareness regarding non-sustainable consumerism. Many people are unaware of what can be recycled; and many are not educated on the products they bring into their homes that eventually end up in their garbage.

Unfortunately, many aspects of western culture promote what I like to refer to as blind consumerism. Every day we are bombarded by television and radio commercials, magazine ads, billboards, and computer ads that are meant to persuade and entrance us. People are told to buy things, and once they have them, they’re told it’s obsolete. While most don’t intend to contribute to resource depletion and wastefulness through their purchases, the fact is most people have no idea the impact their making through their purchasing habits. By this, I do not mean positive feedback where buying a product encourages the manufacturer. I mean that most people are not aware of the resources that go into creating the products they buy, the pollution generated manufacturing them, or what happens to them once they’re thrown in the garbage.

In my opinion, I do not believe our educational system places enough emphasis on environmental well-being and I think this is a key contributor to environmental detachment. Personally, I had exactly one class that focused specifically on the environment before I graduated high school (which I chose – not a requirement). I know many individuals that graduated without one single class educating them on environmental issues. However, for me, that one class changed the entire course of my life. That one class is what made me decide to pursue environmental studies in college. I fear that many people were deprived of the enlightenment I received because our educational system does not require a class focusing on environmental awareness.

Sources: http://www.cleanair.org/Waste/wasteFacts.html


Photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Cellphone-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0