When people think of environmental issues, they typically imagine something an individual cannot control, like an oil spill in the gulf, or smogs in LA, or global warming hovering over our planet like a spaceship – things that are very ambiguous to an individual. But there are some issues which are more connected to our individual choices, which are typically disregarded as trivial. Recycling is one of them. It is all around us: at our jobs, in our neighborhood, maybe even in parks, yet it is not everywhere like it is supposed to be… It exists in signs, in Earth Day events, in those crazy environmentalists, but unfortunately it does not live in our American mindset. Just look in the recycling bins at your job – how many items in there are properly recycled? What about the trash? To really understand the anatomy of trash, we have to look at the causes, consequences, and solutions.
Have you heard of the “trash island” that lives in the Pacific Ocean? Well, it is made up of mostly plastic that has been trapped in the currents of the oceans and is estimated to be between 270,000 to more than 5,800,000 square miles. Back in the 1950’s, when present day plastic was just discovered, it was supposed to be our environmental savior, replacing ivory and wood. But the low-cost and availability created a monster, rather than a savior. Nurdles, from which all plastics are made of and which make up most of the trash island, are tiny pre-plastic pellets that kill large numbers of fish and birds that mistake them for food.1 These nurdles are everywhere, moving up the food chain until they reach us.
The sources of that trash, which make up the island, are considered diverse. Yet according to the EPA, US is the biggest waste producer in the world, followed by other leading industrial nations, accumulating at least 236 million tons per year of municipal solid waste alone.2 So what does this mean for us and our country? Waste production is a sign of prosperity and waste generation decreases considerably during economic downturns.3 In India, for example, waste pickers in slums collect trash for recycling use, reducing the average waste generation to 1.3 pounds per person per day, compared to 4.6 pounds in US.4 Looking at prosperity through trash, makes recessions look a lot nicer.
But not all is in dire straits… Some landfills, including Puente Hills near Los Angeles, manufacture energy from the methane gas that is produced during trash’s decomposition process. Puente Hills landfill is 500 feet tall and is a high point in the south end of Los Angeles. (This reminds me of the movie “Idiocracy” which is not so far-fetched as it once seemed.) “There is so much trash in this landfill that it generates enough electricity to power 70,000 homes,” says Edward Humes, the author of “Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash”. Humes says capturing the methane gas to make energy is better than allowing it to escape into the atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it is the most efficient way to make energy.5 Manufacturing those landfill products uses more energy, than the landfill generates.
China is taking advantage of the US production of paper waste. They buy the paper waste, shipping it immense distances with enormous environmental impact, manufacture new products, and ship it back into US.6 It might be more economical in monetary terms, but environmentally, it is rather disappointing.
The story of Harrisburg, PA is also worth noting. If you haven’t heard,Harrisburg claimed bankruptcy this year and it all has to do with waste management. In the 1970’s, an incinerator was built in Harrisburg as the region’s answer to its waste. It was supposed to convert trash to steam and electricity, which the city would sell, generating revenue. But since the beginning, it never worked quite right. The city kept taking out loans to repair the incinerator, hoping that it will finally work properly and create wealth for the city. After 40 years, Harrisburg is sitting on $300 million of debt and its residents pay $200 a ton to dispose of their own waste at a facility within city limits, one of the highest trash rates in the country. At that rate, it would be more prudent to start composting and recycling.
So where do we go from here and what does the future hold for us? The answer lies in a person’s view of the future and their comprehension of how significant the environmental issues are in forming that future. Any form of conservation is considerable and it can begin with recycling.
Tree People ❤
Links to great ideas of recycling, reusing, and upcycling:
 Moore, Charles. “What’s a Nurdle?” Greenpeace. 7 November 2006. Web. 27 April 2012. <http://weblog.greenpeace.org/>
 Malone, Robert. “World’s Worst Waste.” Forbes.com. 24 May 2006. Web. 27 April 2012. <http://www.forbes.com/>
 “Municipal Solid Waste in The United States.” Environmental Protection Agency. November 2008. Web. April 2012. <http://www.epa.gov/>
 Look, Marie. “Trash Planet: India.” Earth911.com. 3 August 2009. Web. 27 April 2012. <http://earth911.com/>
 “Following Garbage’s Long Journey Around The Earth.” National Public Radio. 26 April 2012. Web. 27 April 2012. <http://www.npr.org/>
 “Waste Paper Destined for China.” Paper.com.cn. 24 July 2009. Web. 27 April 2012. <http://www.paper.com.cn/>