Burying the Problem: Waste Management in the U.S.

What does waste management look like in the United States and how does composting fit into the bigger picture?

Do you operate on the blissful “out of sight, out of mind” principle, believing that to throw something “away” is to vaporize it?  It’s difficult not to, considering how simple waste disposal seems to be – all the average American has to do is haul their garbage outside and wait for it to disappear.  If you carry your thoughts out to the curb with you, however, and allow them to be carted off, following the path of the pizza boxes and the Styrofoam cups, you will quickly realize that all that waste must end up somewhere.  That somewhere – for all refuse that does not make it into the recycling or the yard waste – is usually either a landfill or an incinerator.

Photo courtesy of sepponet/Flickr Creative Commons

Landfills are essentially gigantic repositories of waste where it’s compacted and buried, day after day, until no more will fit and the site is retired.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. and more than 10,000 no longer in use.  The average American is responsible for about 4.6 pounds of waste per day, about 55% of which ends up in a landfill.  Though landfills are usually lined with many layers – such as clay and heavy plastic – meant to protect the surrounding environment from waste and any liquid that may leach from it (known as leachate), the EPA has acknowledged that “even the best liner and leachate collection systems will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.”  In other words, the waste – which when compacted is almost entirely cut off from oxygen and the microorganisms necessary for decomposition – isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and eventually – whether in 30 years or in 300 – the protection systems will fail and the toxins within will seep into the environment.  Even if we discount future pollution, the Earth does not possess unlimited acreage for us to transform into graveyards for the dregs of our material life, so the less waste that ends up in landfills, the better.

Garbage incinerator in Newark, NJ. Built in 1990, it runs 24/7 and can burn up to 2,300 tons of garbage a day. Photo courtesy of Genista/Flickr Creative Commons

Another 12.5% of our waste is incinerated.  While recently European countries like Denmark have taken advantage of improved waste burning technology to reduce pollution while generating heat and electricity from the combustion of waste, the U.S.’s 87 waste-to-energy incinerators are all more than 15 years old and do not match up in either efficiency or safety.  While health effects stemming from incinerators have not been widely investigated, it is known that the combustion of certain materials found in the waste stream can lead to the release of toxic chemicals like dioxin, which according to the World Heath Organization “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”  The Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, in their book Waste Incineration & Public Health, admits to having “a substantial degree of concern for the incremental contribution to dioxins emissions from all incinerators on a regional level and beyond.”  Though incineration has the potential to generate significant amounts of energy safely, the U.S. system would need to be revamped in order for it to become an attractive option.

According to the EPA, the U.S. produces upwards of 34 million tons of food waste per year, which constitutes over 14% of the entire waste stream.  In 2009, less than 3% of that food waste was recycled, meaning that compostable waste “now represents the single largest component of M[unicipal] S[olid] W[aste] reaching landfills and incinerators.”  Composting efforts – aside from returning nutrients integral to plant life to the soil – divert mass from the waste stream, reducing the overall amount that ends up in landfills and incinerators.  New York City’s Barnard College has already taken the first step towards reducing its waste, its on-campus BioX composting machine taking leftover food from the dining hall and “eliminat[ing] the need for putting it into the waste stream,” says Waste Management professor Peter Bower.  However, if we want to make a real dent in the waste stream – both on the small scale of the college and the large scale of the country – we will need to amplify efforts to recycle food scraps and raise awareness, encouraging people to reduce refuse at the source.