Last updated on August 26th, 2021 at 06:13 pm
According to the EPA, the average American produced about five pounds of solid waste every day in 2018. Of those five pounds, about 1.16 were recycled, 0.42 went toward composting, and 0.30 pounds were disposed of through different food management strategies. But that still left us with roughly 200 million tons of waste to deal with by the end of the year.
And, we only managed to recycle about 69 million tons — and even that was a slight improvement over previous years. So what can we do to reduce the amount of non-biodegradable waste that’s clogging up our landfills?
Why We Need to Divert Waste From Landfills
In 2018, food waste accounted for 24.14% of the solid materials in landfills. Of course, most food waste disintegrates over a relatively short period. Unfortunately, plastics accounted for 18.46% of the solid waste materials, along with 9.53% of metals, and 2.24% of inorganic waste. But why should you care about waste management strategies and random recycling facts?
Well, if we don’t think of a way to reduce the amount of solid waste that’s going into our landfills, we’re going to need more of them. And as the years go on, the amount of space we have for those kinds of endeavors will just keep shrinking. At some point, our dwellings will be disturbingly close to these trash heaps.
But that’s where sustainable waste management comes in. If we try to send our non-biodegradable waste down the correct channels rather than tossing it all in the same dumpster, we may avoid the long-term consequences of improper waste disposal. So what are some of the items you should set aside instead of tossing in the trash bin?
Everyday Items That Don’t Disintegrate in Landfills
Ultimately, the cost of starting and running new landfills will fall on the shoulders of everyday citizens. So what can we, as individuals, do to divert waste from landfills until our governments find another way to dispose of it? Well, the most obvious solution would be to send different kinds of materials to specialized processing plants that can handle them.
We can all admit that the U.S. has a plastic problem. We throw away about five million plastic bottles every hour, resulting in as many as 35 billion bottles filling our landfills every year. Depending on the type of plastic we’re talking about, an item can take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to degrade. And even then, microplastics can pollute underground waters — when they’re not actually floating around the ocean.
Of course, plastic bottles aren’t the only problem here. Cleaning supplies, straws, utensils, bubble wrap, shower curtains, cigarette butts, shopping bags, and even acrylic paint are all made of plastic too. These things can take anywhere between 500 to 1,000 years to disintegrate. So what are the other options we can use?
Believe it or not, recycling plastic isn’t as easy as you might think it is. For example, thin plastic bags are all but impossible to recycle, though some grocery stores will take them off your hands. Similarly, lids and caps that are made from plastic have to go through special recycling programs. Luckily, you can always look up local recycling drives to find out when and where you can ditch your plastics.
Polystyrene (aka Styrofoam)
Polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam, is another common sight in landfills all over the world, accounting for an estimated 30% of landfill waste. After all, we use it to make takeout boxes, insulation, and packaging peanuts, among other things. Sadly, none of it is recyclable.
Instead, you can find clever ways to reuse the stuff or even turn it into glue. Alternatively, you can find businesses that reuse old packaging materials and donate the Styrofoam you’ve been holding onto.
Even though natural rubber should disintegrate within 80 years or so, synthetic blends can take up to 2,000 years to disappear. Still, there are some caveats. For example, thin latex gloves could degrade within a few years, though we can’t say the same for rubber balloons. Unfortunately, those are usually made with various preservatives, chemicals, and plasticizers which give them a much more durable composition.
So what can we do with those stubborn rubber products that won’t decompose any time soon? Well, things like vehicle tires and similar kinds of rubber can be recycled into other rubber products. Just check with your local recycling facility before you load up your car with old tires. Alternatively, you could call your auto mechanic or car retailer.
The landfill lifespan of metal products is usually determined by the type of metal they’re made of. For example, while iron would corrode within a few years, aluminum could stick around for two centuries or more. Luckily, most metals are easily recyclable.
The real problem comes when we stop to take into account that most of the items we need to dispose of aren’t simply made of metal. For example, batteries and aerosol cans are both partially made of various metals. Yet we have different methods of disposal for each kind of item.
Medical and Chemical Waste
Most people know that they can’t use just any dumpster to throw out syringes and needles. However, there are many other kinds of products that belong to this category, including:
- Cleaning products (which you can pour down the drain before tossing the packaging in with the rest of your recycling)
- Expired and unused containers of prescription medication (your local CVS should have a drop box for those)
- Diapers and sanitary pads (it’s best to just replace those kinds of products with sustainable alternatives)
- Paint and printer ink cartridges
When in doubt, check in with the nearest hazardous waste transfer facility. They usually accept batteries, paint, swimming pool chemicals, solvents, cleaners, poisons, insecticides, used motor oil, and fluorescent light bulbs, among other things. However, you may have to make an appointment to drop off any items from that list.
Clothing, Fabrics and Thread
Depending on the origin of the thread, our clothing can take anywhere from five months to two centuries to disintegrate in a landfill. While natural materials like cotton and wool degrade without an issue, nylon and polyester have considerably worse environmental impacts.
Nylon fishing lines and nets can take as many as 40 years to degrade. And during that time, they accumulate in the ocean, and present a serious problem for marine animals and other wildlife. Luckily, we can divert waste from landfills and prevent manufacturers from using raw materials by simply recycling those synthetic threads.
Glass and Ceramic Cookware
As you can imagine, glass is a pretty durable material. Once it’s formed, it will never disintegrate. Still, some businesses will take it off your hands to melt it down and transform it.
Unfortunately, ceramic items aren’t as easy to ditch since they tend to have a much higher melting point than even glass. So if you try to turn your ceramic cookware to your local recycling plant, they’ll probably turn you away. At most, you might be able to donate it. Even if it’s broken, an art studio somewhere might want to use it as a prop.
In today’s world, there’s no shortage of electronic devices waiting to meet their end. Even though our phones, TVs and computers seem to have decreasing lifespans, the plastic and metal parts won’t disintegrate any time soon. Luckily, many recycling centers do accept large appliances and some electronics.
Unfortunately, most of them still refuse to take on smartphones and similar items. You might have better luck looking up phone recycling bins or businesses online. [Also read: Cell Phones for Soldiers – Donate Your Old Phones for a Great Cause!]
Urge Your Government to Fund Sustainable Waste Management Projects!
As waste management experts like to say, landfills are a short-term solution to a long-term problem. People will keep generating waste for as long as we’re around. But if we don’t find better ways to deal with it, that may not be for much longer.
Ultimately, there’s only so much we can do as individual consumers. So we need to pressure local governments to devise and implement Zero Waste strategies as soon as possible. Some countries, like Sweden and Singapore, are way ahead of us already! So why are we letting our government drag its feet?
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.
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