Trash matters

In my recent move to the East Coast, I realized how much trash is associated with relocation. By the time we finished unpacking and buying new things, we had a mountain of plastic packing material and cardboard. What is the best way to deal with all the waste that the 21st century lifestyle creates?  

Some cities are better at dealing with trash than others. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was a tragedy that leveled a huge part of the city. A far-sighted, positive zoning outcome from the aftermath was that the city planners reassessed the need for service alleys between buildings and homes. 
Most Manhattan residents don’t have the luxury of storing garbage in alleys. Local trash goes from the building to the sidewalk in many cases. That requires garbage crews to be extra vigilant.  

According to a New York Times video, every day 2,000 garbage collection trucks and 7,200 people haul 10,000 tons of waste out of New York City. Where does the garbage go when it leaves Manhattan? There is 85 percent of it that has to be transported out of the area, sometimes as far away as Virginia. 

Dumping trash in a landfill may not be the best answer to get rid of our waste. The easiest landfills to access near major cities are filling up. This requires more miles of truck hauling or barge transportation and more energy. Landfills are not perfect from an environmental standpoint either. Some of the undesirable things in the area can leak down into the water table. Landfills also produce methane, which is a problematic green house gas if not captured.  

Would it be better to cut out the major transportation part of the process and just incinerate trash closer to the sources? About 20 years ago, trash incineration wasn’t much more complex than throwing garbage in a big oven. In 2016, many countries rely heavily on incinerators. In addition to getting rid of most of their garbage instead of driving it around and storing it underground, they use cogeneration from the heat to provide electricity.
In a’s article titled, “Trash: Does burning beat burying?” it states, “Tiny Denmark, population 5.5 million, has 27 waste-to-energy incinerators, almost one-third as many as in the United States, population 309 million. In 2009, the European union had at least 429 plants in operation.” 

A graph in the article shows that six European Union countries recycle or incinerate 95 percent of their waste. Do these countries incinerate trash because they don’t physically have the real estate to create landfills like we do in the U.S. and Canada? Denmark can’t just haul garbage further and further away from big cities. Without paying a bigger country to take it away, incineration is the only in-country option.  

What are the downsides to incinerating trash? Incinerators are cleaner now than they were in the past, but they aren’t magic. Trash is dirty, and the electronics we throw away make things worse. Some environmental groups dislike the incinerating process because it produces more CO2 than coal or oil-fired power plants. The incineration process is far from perfect, and about 25 percent of the garbage that comes in still has to be stored in a landfill as ash waste anyway.  

In an April article, The Washington Post reported on a young lady named Destiny Watford in Baltimore who spearheaded a movement to block an incinerator plant project near her home. Baltimore has the most deaths caused by air pollution of any major U.S. city. The article cites a 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which found that, “113 people per 100,000 Maryland residents — higher than in any other state — die as a result of emissions from car and truck traffic, trains and ships, commercial heating systems and industrial smokestacks.” 

The new plant could have added 1,240 pounds of mercury to the air per year. Destiny, only 17-years-old when she started fighting against the proposal, recently won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.     

Should we haul waste to landfills or burn it closer to its origin? The answer to how we best dispose of trash isn’t an easy one. The biggest part of the solution isn’t the process of getting rid of waste. The problem is the amount of waste we create. We use more stuff than we need. Ironically, the garbage collection process for most North Americans is so efficient, you don’t even think about the amount of waste you create. It took the act of moving into a new apartment in a weekend to show me how much garbage and recycling I was creating.   

As a consumer, you can also avoid buying products that come in an excessive amount of packaging. A USB flash drive doesn’t need a 6- by 8-inch plastic clamshell package. IKEA does a good job of reducing packaging, for the most part. Any box of furniture you open from IKEA is packed like a Tetris game to minimize shipping and storage space. 

There isn’t a perfectly clean way to get rid of trash, outside of the fictional waste-fueled Flux Capacitor in the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” However, somewhere between 24 and 35 percent of our daily trash is organic material. That means possibly a third of our landfills are filled with material we could have composted and even more material that could have been recycled.  

At the plumbing wholesale level, cardboard compacting and recycling can make a big difference. At Able Distributors in Chicago they have a compactor on site to crush big cubes of boxes. This allows them to reduce their dumpster size and pay lower collection fees.  

Nobody creates zero waste, and trash habits are hard to break. Even in the New York Times video, mentioned earlier, some of the trash collectors who know the effects of single use containers were all drinking coffee from them.  

In the future, we will be more aware of our trash. New landfills or incinerators will end up in more of our backyards. Water tables risk being contaminated from leaky landfills. Air pollution could increase from adding incinerators.  Hopefully, advances in waste storage will make the process safer, but you never make some trash clean again.  

Historically, we have indiscriminately thrown so much in our landfills that they may be valuable. In a March 2013 article from The Guardian, Steven Cohen, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said, “Someday soon, we’ll be mining our landfills for resources.”

We have done such a poor job of sorting our waste, that it may be more cost effective to dig up our own aluminum garbage than to mine it somewhere across the globe. 

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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