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Leaders' Blog

Garbage In, Garbage Out

By April 1, 2021September 7th, 2021No Comments

By Dr. Richard Koral, Leader

This morning I undertook one of my regular household chores, taking out the trash. You may think it’s simply a matter of wheeling a bin out to the curb. But no, not me. I chose to save the $600 a year it costs for curbside pick-up and take it myself to the transfer station. In my old house upstate, I could take it to the actual dump, and that was fun. Here, though, dumps are outsourced, and everything is collected for transport to an out-of-state location.

Preparing the trash and the recycling is a whole morning’s occupation. Because I’ll have to go to two separate locations, I place the trash on one side of the station wagon, and the recycling on the other. You can tell which is the recycling because it’s so clean. The recycled items are treated like resources, and Bill, the recycling supervisor, won’t stand for anything soiled. He’s sent me to the trash more than once with items he deemed beyond redemption.

The service uses what they call “single stream” recycling, which means they don’t trust the public to do the sorting, and almost everything goes into one big compactor for mechanical sorting downstream. From time to time, they change the arrangement and today only glass and corrugated cardboard are presorted. It depends on the equipment they have. But wait, there’s more to it. Electronics go into a bin of their own, light bulbs are also in that trailer, and there’s a special truck for mattresses. It’s not as simple as one might think. Organic waste is collected, too, for compost, and some is returned as mulch, available for free. At the start of the season, there’s a huge mountain of mulch to be reduced through the year by folks who back up to it with their cars and pick-ups. But I do my own composting.

The trash is handled next door. Considering that I compost and recycle, there’s relatively little actual trash from my household. Trash disposal is in a building constructed around a pit into which an open-top trailer truck backs up. You drive up to the edge and toss in your trash or tip your garbage truck, and into the trailer it goes. Huge items that fill up my entire car become tiny m a t c h s t i c k s within the enormous, open-topped trailer. Once the trailer is filled up, it is driven out, a fabric top is stretched over it, and off it goes to the landfill.

The recyclables are sorted by huge mechanical systems that separate out endless quantities of aluminum, paper, and plastics.

Unfortunately, there is little use made of the recycled materials these days. China used to be the big purchaser of recycled paper and metals, but no longer. Plastics are energy-expensive to recycle, and the mix of materials found in most products make them a pain to disentangle. Many of them cannot be effectively recycled. Just because an item has the arrow symbol does not mean it is actually being recycled.

We need to spark the effort to save us from our waste.

Currently, we are in a glut of materials backed up and waiting in line to be reused. All those plastic clam-shell containers, old magazines, and packing materials don’t have a ready market today. Metric tons of plastic collect in Sargasso Seas of plastic bottles. It is said that only one in six plastic bottles is even returned. Amazon boxes are smiling at us by the millions. Mountains of Styrofoam popcorn will never be eaten.

To keep us from being overwhelmed by the tons and tidal waves of used materials, much of the recyclables are going to the landfills after all.

We need to invent new ways to make use of the refuse that we produce. At the same time, the serious generators of trash and waste are found in industry, not households. Even with all the concerted action of millions of households assiduously doing their recycling, it is industrial practices that cause the greatest environmental impact. Legislation is needed to re-enforce the regulation of industrial polluters in our economy.

On April 22, the 51st anniversary of the first Earth Day, let us call for a “moon shot” to break the table-to-landfill pipeline that is continuing to swamp our land and seas. Just as we were motivated to speed up the development of a vaccine for the coronavirus, we need to spark the effort to save us from our waste.

(Image: Thibaud Saintin, Flickr)

Richard Koral

Dr. Richard Koral is a Leader at Ethical NYC.

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