Wise Waste Management Processes
From food waste to old coffee pods to 100 billion-plus plastic water bottles annually in the U.S. – not to mention cardboard boxes and bubble wrap – we filled a planet with waste, compost, and recyclables. Then COVID-19 restrictions and online ordering made it even worse.
While the argument for recycling can be made, even the most optimistic of us realize good intentions – like separating trash from paper, plastics from metal – aren’t always enough.
Sure, recycling the black plastic containers of last night’s Chinese food feels good – except most municipalities don’t have the technology to recycle them, since machines can’t differentiate between the conveyor belt and the black plastic, which ends up in the incinerator or the landfill.
And sadly, too many don’t care about tossing recyclables in with the trash.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that every American produces about 5.91 pounds (2.68 kg) of municipal solid waste (MSW) every day, recycling approximately 1.51 pounds (0.68 kg). This translates into 4.40 pounds (1.99 kg) of garbage per day from each of us.
Over a year, that’s at least 1,600 pounds (725 kg) of trash per person. And with COVID-19 still hanging around, no one can say for certain how much additional non-recyclable trash we’re producing in the form of gloves, face masks, and disinfectant wipes.
Waste not, want not
To address the trash we throw out every day, municipalities have waste management practices in place. In its simplest terms, waste management is a system for collecting, transporting, sorting, treating, and disposing of solid and liquid waste.
According to the environmental issues Conserve Energy Future website, “The entire idea thus boils down to re-using garbage as a valuable resource and given our current environmental climate, this process is extremely vital for all households and businesses.”
Without waste management, our streets would be overrun with garbage, sewage, and rodents.
With a complex system including reduction, recycling, reuse, and composting, the objective is to haul as little non-recyclable material as possible to far-away landfills. But this has become a daily challenge for large cities.
Separating waste is no longer a matter of trucking bulky items like broken furniture and refrigerators to dumps, but involves more and different types of trash which didn’t exist in the past – especially e-waste.
Going big – e-waste
Years ago, electronics like stereos and television sets were bulky and a relatively huge investment. When they broke they were not discarded but repaired.
The rise of home computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices opened new worlds of communication and entertainment, but also new, ever-giving sources of waste, including their printers, monitors, CPUs, scanners, and computer mice.
Although many cities have designated drop-off depots and community environment days where desktop and laptops, keyboards, cables, DVD players, and other devices can be donated, it isn’t unusual to see computer monitors and printers in the trash, where they don’t belong.
Some stores accept old Smartphones, which are taken apart, and precious metals like gold and silver separated from base elements like mercury and arsenic. Despite best efforts, electronics still end up in household waste and are trucked to landfills, where toxins escape and leach into the soil.
The throwaway line
Call it ‘disposable society’ or ‘throw-away society,’ the meaning is the same: we live in a world where waste management systems face multiple challenges.
This concept goes back to mass production methods of the 1920s, and to planned obsolescence, with products engineered and manufactured to fail prematurely, or quickly become outdated and unusable. In short, many items are no longer built to last.
The boom days of the 1950s saw everything from food to household items increasingly packaged, and the term ‘Throwaway Living’ was coined by Life magazine in a 1955 article and photo essay, which shows a smiling family happily tossing paper and plastic products into the air.
Praised for their “convenience,” these single-use products ranged from the practical to the bizarre, including “popcorn that pops in its own pan,” frozen food containers, throwaway water wings, drapes, and even “disposable goose and duck decoys.”
Today, some 70 years later, the world is facing one of its biggest challenges: trash, and too many one-time-use items.
How much is too much? Ask California. Even though the state achieved a 42 percent recycling/composting rate in 2020 – up from 37 percent in 2019 – it still fell far short of its 2020 objective of 75 percent. This prompted Director Machi Wagoner at the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) Rachel to observe, “Our goal of 75 percent needs to be the floor, not the ceiling,” during a department meeting.
While targets to reduce waste and increase recycling are necessary, they are being missed, as evidenced in the recent State of Disposal and Recycling in California for Calendar Year 2020 report.
A leader in environmental policies, the State of California knows it is drowning in waste. In 2020, Californians produced 77.4 million tons of garbage. Using terms like “falling far short,” the report added California is facing “clear evidence that an economy driven by resource extraction and single-use disposable products continues to endanger our people and imperil our planet.”
The report added that the state’s roadmap to a zero-waste future lies in a circular economy. “Consumers placing items in the right bin alone will not solve systemic problems like unrecyclable product designs and a lack of end markets for complex materials.
“To achieve our waste and climate goals, California’s strategy for waste reduction and increased recycling must continue to build on the first major laws enacted in the 1980s through supporting innovation. The state must work with local and private partners to ensure the products California produces and uses can be efficiently collected and remanufactured into new products here in our state.”
Is zero waste possible?
Although many cities have waste management systems in place, the reality is that change starts at home. The concept of zero waste is straightforward: prevention of waste, and encouraging reducing, reusing, and recycling, so waste management becomes much less necessary.
Zero waste requires changing what products we buy, and where we purchase them. Buying local means more than shopping at neighbourhood stores, it carries the injunction to spend our money on items that are also sourced locally, preferably with as little packaging as possible.
With the concept emerging over a decade ago, the idea of zero waste keeps gaining ground through starter kits including reusable glass water bottles and jars, reusable cutlery, and reusable grocery bags, with the backdrop that it is easier, cheaper, and better for the planet to re-use and refill containers multiple times than breaking them (in the case of glass) and sending the shards to factories where they are re-made.
Considering that Earth’s population has doubled in the past 40 years to almost eight billion, the concept of zero waste makes sense.
A big part of the problem is how we approach familiar products while adopting an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to the sourcing of these products. Few of us ever think twice about the fuel required to transport items, or the wasteful one-time packaging they come in.
While streamlining the system through waste management processes is necessary, it is also vital not that we stop consuming – because that will never happen – but that we consume with our wits fully about us.