Lesson 11: Draft Essay
Don't Throw That Away - Recycle It!
What are we to do with our trash in America probably isn't a question you have asked yourself often, but what are we doing? Most of us know that we must get the cans out on Wednesday night so the Trashman can pick it up and haul it away Thursday morning as we get ready for work. Mission accomplished, right?!? Is that enough though? It is not! We need to do better for the environment and our communities. We all need to do our part in recycling. Recycling is not working given that not all items are recycled, and recycling is not done properly, incineration is bad for the environment and landfills are filling up quickly. What happens to the trash we toss out? Let's find out.
Let's burn the trash. Burning or incinerating trash is a quick way to get rid of trash and wouldn't we just be left with a pile of ashes? Americans have been burning trash for a long time. It was the simplest way to rid ourselves of trash. Things have changed in America, technology, lifestyles, where we live today, who we live with and with that change - you guessed it, our trash has changed. With the invention of plastics and other manmade packing materials like Styrofoam burning trash has changed. The incineration of trash does get rid of trash, but anything burned releases smoke that carries air pollutants. Air pollutants such nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxins, and furans. These substances are known to have serious public health effects, from increased cancer risk to respiratory illness, cardiac disease, and reproductive, developmental and neurological problems. According to recent figures from the waste industry, incinerator plants emit more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated than power plants burning natural gas.
Research on direct health impacts of waste incineration in the United States is limited, but a handful of studies from Asia and Europe, where waste incinerators are prevalent, offer some insights. For example, a 2013 study in Italy analyzed the occurrence of miscarriages in women aged 15-49 years residing near seven incinerators in northern Italy's Emilia-Romagna region and found that increased particulate emissions from the incinerators was associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. (Baptista, 2019).
There is a small benefit from burning trash, not in your backyard but through an incineration plant and that is that they can produce energy. Waste-to-Energy is a new method of incineration. The most common setup for waste-to-energy incinerators in the U.S. is what's called the mass burn process. Trucks cart waste to a plant, and overhead cranes lift trash into a chamber where it's set aflame and reduced to ash, most of which is landfilled. The heat from combustion turns water into steam, which is used to spin a turbine that generates electricity. (Urevig, 2019) The energy produced doesn't outweigh the environ environmental impact caused by incineration.
Since burning is not the best option that leads us to landfilling or burying our trash. The first municipal landfill was established in 1937 in Fresno California. Before public landfills people used to burn their trash or take the trash and bury it outside of town to avoid diseases. Once municipal dumps were established, they were not any different than a crater that was manmade. However, there was an Act that was passed in 1976. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act required that landfills to be lined with plastic and sometimes an added layer of clay. The United States has thousands of landfills which are inactive. Inactive landfills are sometimes repurposed as public parks; however, most of inactive landfills are hiding in plane sight. The west coast had its share of inactive landfills. Over a dozen of them in the Los Angeles area alone. The east coast has its fair share of garbage disposal. New Yorker practically built the borough of Staten Island on top of what was formerly the world's largest garbage dump. The average American tosses 4.4 pounds of trash every single day. It may not seem all that astonishing on the surface, but with 323.7 million people living in the United States, that is roughly 728,000 tons of daily garbage - enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks. (Land of Waste)
The dangers of landfill gas include the contamination of methane, carbon dioxide, and water vapors Carbon dioxide was the initial concern of scientist; however, that concern is now shifting toward methane. Although methane does not linger in the air as long as carbon dioxide it does absorb easier with the sun's heat and thus become a larger contributing factor in our global warming problem. Some of the landfill problems and the affect that these dangerous gases have on the environment can only begin to be solved when the United States moves toward a system that seeks minimize our waste. Achieving this goal can only be possible with the help of federal, state, and local government agencies. Policies and programs designed to cut cost and even incentivize a zero-waste shift would help the economy in the shift toward continuous reuse and recycling programs. About 42 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are created in the process of extracting resources, producing goods, disposing of waste, and transporting materials at every stage of that process. (Bradford, 2018) Landfilling our trash has consequences that are harmful to the environment and to the surrounding communities. So, we'd have to reduce the things we throw away to lighten the load and tons of trash we send to the landfills.
This country throws a lot away. We have created new types of trash. Every time we order online, we get prompts just before we click the order button on our phone. The prompts are about shipping. The option of waiting to send most items together to reduce packages is an attempt by sellers to reduce the waste of shipping materials and the cost associated with delivering to an address two times or more. There is a cardboard box, bubble wrap, sometimes plastic air-filled bags or sometimes Styrofoam peanuts to secure the items and a shipping receipt for the stuff we buy. These things get thrown away. Creating more waste. The items we buy are usually made or stored in one-time use containers or wrapped in plastic that isn't easily recycled. It isn't our fault - this is how it was delivered. It can be confusing for the consumer when a product has a recycle symbol on it. Plastic is tricky to recycle. It has a recycle symbol on it so it for the blue bin, right? Maybe. There are some rules to recycling and some things that effect the effectiveness of recycling. What is allowed to be recycled or what is acceptable may change from city to city, in Phoenix, AZ plastic bottles with the caps on; empty beverage cans; newspaper, junk mail and copy paper; plastic jugs; food jars; glass bottles; food cans; and cardboard and cartons are accepted as recycling items. (Gardiner, 2017)
Plastic packaging is difficult to get rid of. There aren't markets for some types of packaging, including many plastics. In many cases, it's much cheaper to make virgin plastic than it is to turn recycled plastic into a usable product. And even if plastic coffee pods or chip bags are labeled "recyclable," there's a big chance they're not getting recycled, according to a report from Greenpeace released on February 18. Only plastics labeled #1 and #2 (which include most soda and water bottles, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles) are easily recyclable, the report found. Those labelled 3-7 (such as yogurt or cottage cheese containers and clamshell containers that hold produce) "cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.," Greenpeace concluded, because few companies collect and recycle them into new material. Yet most people assume that anything with a recycling symbol on it gets recycled, which, research suggests, convinces them to buy more of it. In other words, recycling labeling can actually create more waste. (Semuels, 2020)
Once we figure out what we should recycle, meaning being acceptable items. These items must be sorted out too. The extra effort in the house helps the environment and the community in the long run. The items that are recycled need to meet some qualification or criteria to be recycled. These items are sorted at the recycling station in each city differently but one thing all cities have in common is contamination. Batches of recyclables can be contaminated and end up in the landfill any way, while still costing the city millions and ruin the effectiveness of the recycling process. Items that are considered contaminated or unacceptable are cardboard with food residue or grease. That used pizza box is not recyclable. Napkins or paper towels are not, they have reached their life cycle once they are used. The fibers from these items are too short to be recycled. Thin plastic bags, dry cleaning plastic covers, straws end up in landfills because they will wreck the machines used to process the batches of recycling delivered to them. The thin plastics cannot be effectually recycled and fall into parts of the machine. Cities use people and machines to sort recycle items. Bagging your recycle items will get them to the landfill instead of being recycled. Machines must sort these things as do people. The machines won't open the bags of recyclables during the sorting process and the human sorters do not have the time to open bags which created one more trash item, so they end up getting to the landfill. (Gardiner, 2017)
Incentivizing programs and recycling need to be improved in order for it to become perfected. While some Americans have recycled bins, not all of those recycled products end up being recycled. Some bulks of recycled products become contaminated if items were placed in the wrong bin. Some items that can contaminate a load of recyclables include plastic straws, grocery bags, food containers, and dirt. This contamination prevents large batches of recyclables form being processed. Other items cannot be processed at certain recycle facilities. The lot of unprocessed recyclables ends up being incinerated, placed back into landfills, or washed up into the ocean. State and local programs cannot afford to fund municipal recycling programs. Over 70 ended curbside recycling (though several have been reinstituted after public protests), and many drop-off sites closed; some programs increased costs to residents while others limited what materials they would accept. (Cho, 2020) Recycling was profitable a few years ago allowing many cities the opportunity to sell recycle materials to China. In 2018 recycling began to cost cities more money instead of making money. Recycling became even more difficult after China said in January 2018 that it would stop accepting many types of recycling the U.S. had long sent. Cities that had been paid for their recycling soon were paying for recycling pickup and faced with a national annual loss of $400 million in revenue, either stopped collecting recycling or sent what they had to the incinerator or landfills. (Semuels, 2020)
We should want to be the best at what we do and be the best for ourselves and families so recycling for now is the best way to care for the communities we live, work, and play in. Is this all worth it you might be asking yourself by now? Yes, it is. It is our only way to keep ourselves, our communities healthy and the best way to save the environment that little blue planet we all share. We must go with the flow and that includes the flow of trash we produce in America. We must ensure we do our part - reuse, reduce and recycle. We will have to reduce the amount of single use items we allow or bring into our homes, the way we have our products shipped to us, the way we throw items away. We have to change the way we think of trash. It is no longer viable to just throw it all out in the same bin, we are responsible for the environment in the fact that these simple things we do in our homes allows us to contribute to the bigger picture. We will need to sort our trash properly to keep the recycling programs in our cities manageable. We should be composting to reduce green house gases in landfills. Not everything is safe to throw out. There are electronic devices we cling to for daily life are not friendly to the environment and have components that can be reused. Most BestBuys will accept electronic devices we no longer need. Select the proper shipping option through Amazon and reduce the amount of packaging sent to your home. Sort properly the items we recycle. Rise out your plastics, keep the lids on jugs and bottles to ensure the items are recycled. Stop bagging our recycle items. A few minutes and the proper decisions can save our cities money, the environment and make recycling a better option for America. Just doing these little things will help in the long run. Learn what you can do for your city and keep with it - our future generations will benefit the most.
Baptista, Ana Is burning trash a good way to dispose of it? The Conversation, June 23, 2019
Bradford, Abi, Frontier Group; Sylvia Broude, Toxics Action Center; Alexander Truelove, U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Trash in America. February 12, 2018
Cho, Renee Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It? Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020
Gardiner, Dustin 8 (more) surprising things you shouldn't recycle in Phoenix The Republic/AZCentral July, 1, 2017
Land of Waste: American Landfills and Waste Production Website, Various Contributors
Semuels, Alana To Fix America's Broken Recycling System, States Want Companies to Foot the Bill TIME Magazine February 26,2020
Urevig, Andrew As The World's Garbage Piles Up, Controversy Over Waste-To-Energy Incineration Continues Ensia October 21, 2019