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Let's Talk Trash (and How to Reduce It)

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Most Americans take the matter of trash rather lightly, considering it only briefly, if at all, during that weekly trip to the bin, curb or dump. But the truth is, our country's garbage is a heavy-duty problem, weighing in at about 250 million tons a year.

In the natural world, yesterday's living things break down to nourish today's living things. Most of modern society's trash, however, goes into landfills, which disrupt that circular flow of energy and elements.

Landfills are like parking lots in which natural resources become trapped in garbage gridlock. Under layers of waste and deprived of the air and water that aid decomposition, a newspaper buried in a landfill might remain intact for more than 30 years and a disposable baby diaper 10 times as long.

Landfills are the country's top producer of methane, a greenhouse gas, and yield carbon dioxide and other, sometimes toxic, gases. Additionally, they can send hazardous substances such as pesticides and heavy metals into our soil and water.

Fortunately, it's easy to chip away at the heap of issues associated with trash. Here are a few ways to begin:

Shop smarter. Not buying materials with hazardous ingredients ensures that those substances don't end up at the dump. Purchasing products that are used or recycled cuts landfill waste, conserves resources and supports the recycling industry. Even better: Stick with the things you have. When you must buy new, go for the more durable option. Also, nearly a third of our garbage consists of containers and packaging, so look for products in smaller (or no) packages, and buy in bulk when possible.

Compost. Food scraps and yard clippings make up a quarter of our waste. Chop that figure up and make garden fertilizer in the process by starting a compost pile at home for fruit, vegetable and yard waste. There are many composting methods, from indoor worm bins to backyard piles. If that doesn't work for you, your community may offer yard waste collection, shredding this landfill space-zapper into mulch.

Recycle. It can be costly and in some cases produces nasty byproducts, but most environmentalists agree that recycling's benefits outweigh its drawbacks. Recycling one aluminum can, for example, saves enough energy to power a TV for three hours. Americans recycled 45 percent of their beverage cans in 2006; just think what we could power if we doubled that.

eCycle. To prevent your computer, cellphone and other electronics from leaking dangerous substances, local governments typically offer "eCycling" (electronics recycling) programs, and there are store- and manufacturer-sponsored take-back initiatives. Similarly, your community should have a household hazardous waste program (usually a drop-off point) for such things as paint, rechargeable batteries, cleaners and even those otherwise-eco-friendly compact fluorescent bulbs. To find household waste and eCycling facilities near you, visit http://www.earth911.org or http://www.epa.gov/reg3wcmd.

-- Jenny Mayo

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