Hungry Hungry Hippos: Burying, Burning of Resources Feeds Mindless Consumption
September 28, 2023
Garbage. Trash. Rubbish. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s a manufactured product created when otherwise recoverable resources are mixed together and compacted into reminders of human wastefulness.
(I prefer rubbish, thanks to my high school soccer coach, who, after a bad practice, would inevitably declare: “That was rubbish, gentlemen.”)
The moon, 238,900 miles away, has even been left trashed by us. Spacecraft remains, including rocket boosters, from some 50 crash landings; some 100 bags of human waste; and miscellaneous objects such as golf balls and boots add up to about 200 tons of human trash on Earth’s only natural satellite.
Back on this trashed planet, most rooms in every home and building in the United States have a basket, barrel, bin, or can where this mindless manufacturing begins. The discarded materials they hold are then dumped into larger wheeled vessels or into dumpsters already brimming with deserted resources. These vessels are then tipped into fossil fuel-powered vehicles that deliver endless truckloads of this collected material to landfills and incinerators.
Crushed bottles of pesticides, herbicides, and other poisons, cans of paint and primer, containers holding automobile fluids, and plastic vessels containing myriad household cleaning products form pools of liquid nastiness that eventually leach into the environment and groundwater. Rotting food waste creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is 84 times, at least in the short term, more effective at absorbing the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide, which makes it a significant contributor to the climate crisis. Toxic emissions from incinerated plastics, lumber (often treated with chemicals such as chromated arsenicals, creosote, and pentachlorophenol), medical waste, and other materials pollute the air and our lungs.
The United States alone manufactures nearly 300 million tons of waste every year. In New England, an estimated 12 million tons of waste is manufactured annually.
Even though there are ways to reduce the amount of waste we manufacture, materials and resources, especially in the United States, are routinely tossed out. Landfills and incinerators may appear to be a quick and cheap solution, but their substantial costs inevitably show themselves. The out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to burying and burning stuff we no longer want feeds unrestrained consumption.
For instance, some 62 million tons of new clothing is manufactured worldwide every year, amounting to about 100 billion garments — a 400% increase from two decades ago — to clothe nearly 8 billion people. This production of synthetic materials requires an estimated 340 million barrels of oil year after year.
By 2030, annual global apparel consumption is projected to rise by 63%, to 102 million tons. It has been estimated that about 85% of the materials and fibers used to make clothing end up in either incinerators or landfills. (The average American currently generates about 80 pounds of textile waste annually.)
For decades the municipal cost to dump residential waste at Rhode Island’s Central Landfill in Johnston was artificially low — $32 a ton or less (it’s currently $58.50) — meaning taxpayers never really fathomed the true cost of their consumption. This low municipal tip fee also reduced the economic incentive for cities and towns to invest in waste reduction initiatives and composting programs.
As a result, an obstacle to overconsumption was removed. Items that could have easily or with a little effort been donated or reused were more readily tossed. Things that could have been repaired were more likely to be thrown out. It also led to the Central Landfill filling faster than necessary; it’s currently projected to reach capacity in 2040.
Recycling, for the record, was never the answer. It works well for aluminum and cardboard, but it has been estimated that less than 10% of all the plastic ever created has been recycled. Plastic recycling and that chasing-arrows symbol were a con perpetrated by the fossil fuel industry and it allies to pump out more petroleum pollution guilt-free. It made it OK to consume without thought.
In the six decades since plastics became widely used, the amount of it now choking and poisoning the planet, most notably the world’s oceans, is unconscionable. A 2016 study has warned that there could more waste plastic, by weight, in the ocean than fish by 2050. Single-use plastic items — bags, nips, water bottles, foam clamshells, utensils, straws, and six-pack holders — have become an environmental scourge.
The United States has some 3,000 active landfills and another 10,000 or so closed dumps that contain wasted resources that could have been reused or repaired. They hold methane-producing rotting food that could have fed the hungry or at least livestock, or been composted into nutrient-rich soil used to grow more food.
Making space to bury resources also requires the destruction of more resources. The creation of landfills often means leveling forestland and wildlife habitat. The average U.S. landfill size is 600 acres. With 13,000 or so active and former landfills spread across the country, some 8 million acres of open space could be contaminated. Landfill liners tend to leak, and most of the closed dumps — like the Truk-Away Landfill in Warwick, which closed in 1978 and for which remediation still hasn’t started — never had one in the first place.
Soil and waterway contamination are one of the most notable impacts of landfills. When waste — plastics; pharmaceuticals; batteries; construction and demolition debris; electronics that contain toxic metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and nickel and organic compounds such chlorofluorocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and dioxins and furans; and bulky waste such as couches treated with flame- and stain retardants and refrigerators that contain fluorinated hydrocarbons — is buried, the pollutants they contain are absorbed by the surrounding environment.
The longer these resources fester, the higher the area’s pollutant concentration becomes and the more likely the accompanying blight spreads. Depending on the materials buried, landfilled waste can have a lifespan of a century or more before it decomposes. That doesn’t account for chemicals, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), that can persist much longer. Like forever.
Landfill leachate can also contain high levels of ammonia. When ammonia makes its way into the environment, it is nitrified to produce nitrate. This nitrate can then cause oxygen depletion in waterways by starting a process called eutrophication. Nutrients are essential for plant growth, but an overabundance of them, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, can have harmful human health and environmental impacts.
Algae feed on the nutrients, growing, spreading, and turning the water green. Algal blooms can smell bad, block sunlight, and release toxins. When the algae die, they are decomposed by bacteria — a process that consumes the oxygen dissolved in the water and needed by fish and other aquatic life to survive. If enough oxygen is removed, the water can become hypoxic, where there isn’t enough oxygen to sustain life and a dead zone is created.
We can keep our descendants, and perhaps even ourselves, from having to rummage through landfills in search of resources by dramatically reducing our consumption, embracing reuse and repair, donating instead of tossing, and giving up some convenience — e.g., cut fruit sold in plastic containers — for the sake of others and the world we share.
Thinking more about what we buy and why and what happens to it when we’re done with it would go a long way in reducing the pollution tied to landfills and incinerators.
Frank Carini can be reached at [email protected]. His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.