Monday, April 1, 2013

Not so far and away

I recently visited "Away"--that place things go when you put them out with the trash, otherwise known as the landfill. It was a really eye-opening experience, and I highly recommend it. Really. It's not at all what you think it will be, and it makes you rethink what happens to all that stuff you throw out (although I do recommend visiting before summer heat hits).

Think recyclables are reclaimed? Think again. It's too dangerous to go through garbage to remove items. So what goes into the trash truck by and large goes into the landfill. Appliances--"white goods"--are the exception. They are removed and the people who left them at the curb are fined (your trash collector will remember you if you leave out items they're not supposed to take). These are deconstructed to reclaim hazardous materials and scrap.

Everything else? Into the day's "cell" it goes (more on that below).

Perfectly good things, like used furniture, clothes that didn't sell in a big sidewalk sale or clearance (really--stores would rather throw them away than allow people--even the needy--to have them for free), and leftover food.

That last one's a huge problem, because it attracts animals by the thousands. In fact, there are so many birds at landfills, they have to be located at least six miles from the airport.

Gulls and starlings--tens of thousands of them.

In 2007, our local landfill kept track of what went in:
16% was compostable
46% was recyclable
Together, 62% of what people threw away could have been put to better use, cut down on animal pests, and saved money. How much money? Over 16 million dollars of what is thrown away each year (in my small city's landfill alone) is recyclable.

Why does that matter? The energy saved by recycling ONE aluminum can will power a computer for three hours. If you want to save energy, recycle.

Ever wonder what happens to those bags of yard waste you leave out? The leaves wind up in huge rows.

Those white things are the bags the leaves came in.

So do grass clippings. Branches go into a brush pile 1.5 stories tall. Then the leaves, grass, and chipped branches are mixed in massive rows about 8 feet wide by 6 feet tall. A special machine straddles the rows, periodically turning the yard waste from the inside out.

A quarter-mile of compost.

The temperature inside gets up to 140 degrees (F), where the landfill employees try to keep it for at least 3 weeks--compost that hot will kill disease pathogens and weed seeds. Months later, they've got mountains of compost that's pretty much free for the taking.

The landfill itself is a carefully engineered, highly organized structure where the trash trucks dump your garbage. They don't back up to a big hole in the ground and let loose. They have to go to that day's "cell" to dump their load, and someone with GPS marks the location. That way, if they ever need to recover something that was thrown out on a certain day, they know where it is. What could you possibly want to recover from a landfill? A diamond ring, maybe. Or a body (sad but true).

Heavy (100,000-pound) equipment compacts the loads. Their goal is to fit 1700 pounds of garbage into one square yard of space. Think about that for a second--just how much garbage they're cramming into landfills that fill within just a few decades.

If everyone composted and recycled, the life of the landfill would almost triple. That's pretty phenomenal.

Want to do your part? Here are some resources for getting started:

Build a compost bin. This can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be (we have the three-bin one, which is great because we fill one of the side bins and leave it to compost while we fill the other. We put all finished compost in the middle until we're ready to use it). Not for you? Near the bottom of the link are the two simplest methods.

And in case you're wondering, NO, it doesn't smell. Not unless you put in too many "greens" (grass clippings and kitchen waste) and not enough "browns" (dried leaves, paper bags, sawdust, etc.) As long as you've got a good balance, it just smells like soil.

If you're not recycling, start. Check out the programs in your area. Most offer curbside recycling. To make it easy, look for one that doesn't require you to sort. Some take more than others, so do your research and find the ones that accept more recyclable goods.

Frustrated by the things your local companies won't take? (All that food packaging, for instance?)

RecycleCartons takes paper milk and juice cartons. If they're not available close to you (and you don't mind spending a little money now and then), you can mail your cartons in.

TerraCycle takes all kinds of "unrecyclables." Sign up for a brigade (or two or three). TerraCycle pays for shipping for most brigades. The best part? You earn points that can be donated to your favorite school or charity. Want to have a positive impact on your school? Have them set up a station for families to bring in their packaging and turn recycling into a fund-raiser.

Remember, you don't have to do everything at once: even small steps make a difference. But often people who start with small steps decide to take additional steps once they realize it's really not all that difficult or painful. I hope that's true for you.

What's your first step going to be?

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