The average American throws out 4.4 pounds of garbage each day. While this might not seem like much, when multiplied across the country's population, that works out to be 63,000 garbage trucks worth of waste.
No matter which country you call home, we all create garbage in our day-to-day lives.
When the garbage bin inside our home is full, we take the bag to our bin outside. On garbage day we push our garbage cans to the curb, and right about here is where we often forget about our garbage entirely as it's picked up by a truck and taken away.
So, what actually happens to our trash?
On average, a municipal garbage truck picks up waste from between 700-850 homes. This adds up to anywhere from 12 to 14 tons of garbage!
Once full, the garbage truck heads to the landfill, is often weighed, dumps its load, and continues on to the next neighbourhood to repeat the same process.
At the landfill, the trash is spread and compacted by bulldozers or compactors with the goal of taking up as little space as possible and create stability.
But what exactly is a landfill?
The purpose of a landfill is to bury garbage while keeping it isolated from the surrounding environment and out of groundwater.
Modern landfills are lined with layers of soil, clay, plastic, fabric, and gravel to help protect the environment from waste and collect leachate (a contaminated fluid that leaches out of the body of a landfill).
Because landfills are engineered to keep trash dry and avoid its contact with the air, they are not designed to break down waste, only to store it.
Are landfills a good thing?
A landfill in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Historically, waste was thrown in the streets and considered dealt with, but with this came the spread of diseases and problems with rodents and other pests.
As people realized this, we turned to either burning our garbage or burying it outside the main areas of town to avoid disease.
Then what's the problem with landfills?
Landfills themselves prevent waste and trash from being dumped in our streets. The problem isn’t so much with a landfill itself, as it is what’s being contained within it.
What’s actually in our landfills?
Unfortunately, the majority of the world’s landfills are actually full of plastic and organic materials, not trash.
Why is this a problem?
Out of sight, out of mind. An excess of plastic and organic materials create issues that we don't see!
It contributes to global warming
When organic material like food scraps or yard trimmings end up in the landfill they are compacted and covered along with all other types of waste. Doing this prevents airflow and access to oxygen, creating an anaerobic environment.
Because of this anaerobic environment, the microorganisms that break down organic materials produce methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The gas created from a landfill is roughly 50% methane, 45% carbon dioxide, and 5% water vapor with trace amounts of other elements and non-methane organic compounds (NMOCs).
It’s through this that organic materials in landfills are responsible for creation and release of about 12% of the world’s methane.
Toxins can leach into our environment
Much of what ends up in our landfills contains toxic substances. Over time, as these items start to break down, they begin to create leachate.
Older landfills were built and lined with compacted soil and clay with the hopes of containing leachate. Unfortunately, the failure rate of these is high.
While many newer landfills are lined with plastic and have pipe systems that aim to collect leachate, these often rip during installation and/or develop holes and cracks over time. This gives these chemicals the ability to leach into our soil and groundwater.
This toxic runoff creates environmental hazards for plants, animals, and people.
We’re running out of space
Us humans are now generating more waste than ever before.
It’s hard to know what percentage of our planet is now covered in landfills, both active and inactive, but it’s estimated that we’re now running out of landfills globally at a rate of one per day.
Landfills stick around forever
Because waste in a landfill doesn’t decompose, the landfill will eventually become full.
When a landfill reaches capacity, all the garbage inside it is covered with clay, plastic, and several feet of soil. Often, plants or grass are planted overtop.
What can you do?
If we each individually take steps to reduce what ends up in our garbage bin we can collectively make a big difference.
Sort your waste
- Compost - Organic waste is the most commonly dumped item in our landfills.
Instead of clogging our landfills and creating methane which harms our environment, our food waste could be used to create nutrient-rich soil to improve our environment.
- Recycle - Millions of tons of paper, plastics, electronics, textiles, and glass end up in landfills each year.
Instead of allowing these items to leach contaminants into our environment, they could be reused, upcycled, or sent to a recycling facility to be properly repurposed.
Choose your products carefully
Who decided boxes need to come in smaller boxes padded with plastic peanuts or that plastic wrapped vegetables need to go in plastic bags?
There’s really no need for any of this.
Support companies that make the environment a priority by choosing products with compostable packaging or without any packaging at all.
Follow the 5 R’s of zero waste living
- Refuse - Say no.
- Reduce - Consider what you really need to buy.
- Reuse - Opt for items that can be used again and again.
- Repurpose - Give things a new life.
- Recycle - Sort your waste and make sure it goes to the right place.
Making each of these a habit keeps items out of our waste management systems and our environment.
We hope this blog has provided insight on what happens with our waste beyond our garbage bins and how we globally manage landfills and look forward to hearing from you in the comments.
Ready to give up the garbage and go eco-friendly?