Talking Trash

trash pilePlastics in the oceans, fish and turtles choking on garbage, litter … what can be done?

I strongly advocate for cleaning up the beaches, oceans and rivers. The cleanup schemes range from just individually picking up trash to complicated ocean plastic-collection systems. In the U.S. we’re also talking about banning plastic straws and water bottles. When considering alternatives, I believe we need to take a step back and get a better understanding of trash.

Trash is a stuff we generate by doing something. By that definition, trash is generated by our very existence. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the trash. We grow and consume food, and leave the inedible bits and excrete wastes; the agricultural and human wastes are trash. We mine ore and manufacture jewelry; the mine and processing wastes are trash. We buy a latte; and the coffee grounds and paper cup are trash. We wash our hands; the wash water and soap suds that go down the drain are trash.

We can be smart and use or manage our trash to be beneficial. We can reduce the amount of trash generated. We can reuse some trash for a new purpose. We can recycle the materials in trash for some other purpose. Or, we can just put it somewhere out of the way where it causes no bother.

What is thrown away says a lot about the people it came from. Archaeologists studying ancient civilizations search for the “middens”, the trash piles. These remains reveal the food, tools and clothing in use at a given time.

When I worked on the Navajo reservation, an archaeologist showed me how to find old home or camp sites. We would find a shard patch, where broken pottery pieces covered the ground, and he would pick one up, face west, and toss it. Imagine living back then, your hovel, tent or hogan door faced east to catch the first rays of the rising sun. Your cooking fire was just outside the doorway and that’s where you did most of the food prep. Accidents happen, and you sometimes break a pot when cooking. Rather than leave the sharp shards where you walk, you simply toss them away — probably to the east. So, when we threw a shard to the west it most likely landed near signs of an old fire ring.

Obviously, a sparsely populated area has lots of room for trash where it doesn’t cause much of a problem. Much trash can, over time, just decay into the environment or be consumed by bacteria or other plants and animals. However, the wrong kind of trash or trash in the wrong place can be disastrous. Basically, every Superfund site is a place where wastes caused problems, whether emitted through the air, discharged as a liquid or dumped on the ground.

In the U.S. and many other countries, there are regulations about the acceptable ways to manage trash. Some have routine trash collection for homes and businesses. Wastes can be dumped into the environment, landfilled, incinerated or recycled. Each option converts the original waste into another form. Landfills use surface space and result in long term, low level methane emissions (if not recovered) and can cause releases of contaminants to groundwater (if not properly designed). Incineration causes emissions to the air, and still requires disposal of ash and any recovered emissions. Recycling can generate useful products but also process wastes requiring proper management.

Dumping into the environment, basically large-scale littering, is a lazy person’s way to manage wastes. Waste components can spread to surface and groundwater and be scattered by wind and animals, including humans. Decay of many organics can take place, causing odor problems. Waste piles are often breeding grounds for diseases that effect both humans and animals. Vermin and other creatures can consume components of the waste, and often become a problem in their own right. Ocean dumping used to be a standard practice in near-coastal areas, but is now banned in North America and Europe; however, is still practiced by some countries.

Modern U.S. landfills are sited and designed to isolate the wastes from the environment. Liners and leachate collection systems are installed to protect groundwater. Wind fences, berms and daily cover minimize surface water contact, animal and insect infestation and blowing of trash. Acceptance criteria minimize the dangerous or liquid components of the waste. Final covers and methane collection systems provide long term encapsulation of the waste.

Similar regulation and design features are required for incineration and recycling systems in the U.S. And, there are currently efforts in the U.S. to ban certain waste materials, such as plastic straws and disposable water bottles, that reach the environment through littering. Of course, littering is already banned nationwide, but the additional restrictions are apparently necessary because people are too lazy or inattentive to properly dispose of their trash.

We in the U.S. are justifiably proud of our waste management efforts, despite our littering. Meanwhile, in Africa, South Asia and East Asia, trash from just ten river systems ends up in the rivers and then the oceans, making up approximately 95 percent of the plastic waste in the oceans of the world. Recognizing that plastics are only one component of the trash, the amounts of debris and non-plastic garbage dumped into the environment in those places must be enormous. And, that’s just the stuff we can see, and not the chemicals discharged into the water or air.

Maybe we don’t need to worry about global warming or nuclear war killing us all off; we need to worry about the population explosions in Africa and Asia and the garbage and wastes that they dump into our Earth.

Remember, it’s the only Earth we have.

Additional information:

Melissa Breyer, These 10 Rivers Likely the Source of Millions of Tons of Ocean Plastic, November 6, 2017, TreeHugger Daily News

US Environmental Protection Agency, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,

Steve Tarlton, Writes of Nature:

What Broke The Camel’s Back, 8/16/18

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere, and Not Just Straws, I Think, 7/26/18

The Last Straw?, 3/08/18

Plastic (not so) Fantastic, 8/29/17

Littering, 1/12/17

Cleaning Up, 8/13/15

Down in the Dumps, 7/24/15

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