While currently there is way too much trash talk from the Commander in Cheat,* today I’m reflecting on another kind of trash—household garbage, Styrofoam, old appliances, vehicles, junk of all kinds–that we as Americans throw away. Once that stuff is out of sight, we forget about it. You know the saying, “out of sight, out of mind.”
On average, each person in the United States throws away more than four pounds of solid waste (garbage and other trash) every day. Paper and paperboard, yard trimmings, and food waste make up the largest component of this trash.
About 54 percent of the garbage and other trash goes to landfills, a large pit covered with dirt. Bacteria in the soil can biodegrade materials such as food scraps in a relatively short time. Decomposed materials then become part of the earth. But bacteria need oxygen and water to work efficiently. At most modern landfills, machines crush and compact refuse, then each day cover it with earth. Layer after layer of trash builds up. Thus the rate of decomposition slows down, and refuse may stay in tack for months or many years.
There are varied estimates on how long it takes for items to decompose. Newspapers can stay around for years, aluminum cans take from two hundred to five hundred years to decompose, and some glass and plastics may last millions of years.
Not only do these materials add to the heaps of waste that fill up disposal sites, but an increasing amount of trash contains toxic substances such as weed and pest killers, cleaning fluids, paint strippers, and used car oil. Some throwaways contain heavy metals like lead and mercury, proven health hazards. Lead may seep from corroding batteries, for example. Children exposed to low levels of lead can suffer brain damage, nervous system disorders, and other developmental problems.
Few places are able to escape the problem of waste disposal. Garbage chokes waterways in some U.S. areas. Hikers and bikers trash mountainsides in remote areas such as the Alaskan wilderness.
Electronics present their own kind of problem. Consider mobile devices—from cellphones to laptops to tablets. The number of devices are increasing daily. As new electronics are produced, older ones are discarded. Electronic throwaways contain hazardous materials that can leak into soil and water.
The good news: about 68 million tons of waste are recycled. Paper and paperboard account for approximately 67 percent of that amount. Metals comprise about 12 percent, while glass, plastic and wood make up between 4 and 5 percent. In addition, many Americans compost food waste and yard trimmings, reducing the trash in landfills.
More about food waste in Too Much Trash, Part II.
*Commander in Cheat is the title of a book by Rick Riley, who says he’s a “recovering sportswriter…who now writes books and movies and tries not to shoot his weight in golf.” His book describes how Trump cheats at golf and includes Riley’s own experiences with Trump as well as interviews with over 100 golf pros, amateurs, developers, and caddies who are well aware of how Trump cheats.