Tackling Trash In Our Nation’s Green Spaces

Americans generate more than 250 million tons of trash each year, and about two-thirds of that ends up in our already bulging landfills. Amid that toxic mix of plastics, hard metals, rotting food and other garbage is waste that could be reused or recycled. Now, multiple efforts are afoot to drastically reduce the volume of environmentally unfriendly waste and put it to good use.

Landfills pollute the air with greenhouse gases like methane, and contaminate groundwater with hazardous elements like chromium and mercury. They occupy space that could be used for green initiatives, and are a blight on the landscape. According to one estimate, the country must add 1,000 acres of landfill space each year just to keep pace with the growing flow of waste.

Multiple federal, state and local initiatives, as well as those through private industry, are underway to eventually reduce the size of these mountainous trash heaps. One of the most dramatic projects is happening at our national parks, where some of the country’s most pristine wilderness and wildlife areas are working to eventually reduce their contributions to landfills to zero through recycling, composting and other conservation efforts.

Each year, a total of more than 100 million pounds of trash is generated by park visitors

Each year, a total of more than 100 million pounds of trash is generated by park visitors at Denali National Park in Alaska, Yosemite in California and Grand Teton in Wyoming.

With the ultimate goal of cutting landfill contributions from national parks to zero, the NPCA has partnered with Subaru on the Zero Landfill Initiative that hopes ultimately to reuse, recycle or compost 100 percent of the trash currently going to local landfills.

The parks’ waste stream includes everything from coffee cups and plastic packaging to diapers and sanitary products. It clutters campgrounds, defiles fishing streams and sickens animals that ingest these materials. Leftover food can also attract bears to camping areas, increasing the likelihood of incidents that can end badly for both bears and humans.

Although not all their garbage gets recycled, the national parks are working to manage the waste stream. Jamie Varner, senior director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Center for Park Management, said the efforts must start with visitor education. “In a business you have a lot more control. In our case much of it comes down to the behavior of our visitors.”

The parks’ program includes placing more recycling containers next to garbage bins, and adding signage encouraging campers and hikers to manage their waste and educational outreach by park rangers. Staffers advise visitors to sort recyclable materials and avoid bringing non-reusable or non-biodegradable items into the parks.

  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Denali

  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Grand Teton

    1,827.8
    Tons generated
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Yosemite

    6,516.8
    Tons generated
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Denali

    513
    Tons generated
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Denali

    14%
    Reclaimed or reused
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Grand Teton

    1,827.8
    Tons generated
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Grand Teton

    45%
    Reclaimed or reused
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Yosemite

    6,516.8
    Tons generated
  • Annual waste-to-recycling ratios at zero-landfill pilot parks

    Yosemite

    63.5%
    Reclaimed or reused
Source: Subaru

Waste management isn’t just a problem for the parks. The federal government has stepped in to help businesses and individuals reduce the amount of landfill-bound trash they generate. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Net Zero program advises companies and communities on how to reduce water, energy and solid waste. For example, it’s working with local officials in Columbia, S.C. to find ways to turn organic waste like food scraps into energy. The leftovers could be diverted from landfills and used in aerobic digesters in wastewater treatment plants.

Subaru is no stranger to such efforts. Its Lafayette, Ind., plant has been a zero-landfill facility since 2004, meaning all waste is recycled or repurposed into energy.

Subaru uses bar codes to track the lifecycle of parts and packaging through the production stream. This makes it easier for the company to manage waste and ensure it’s destined for the best avenue of reclamation.

Source: EPA

Subaru is no stranger to such efforts. Its Lafayette, Ind., plant has been a zero-landfill facility since 2004, meaning all waste is recycled or repurposed into energy.

Subaru uses bar codes to track the lifecycle of parts and packaging through the production stream. This makes it easier for the company to manage waste and ensure it’s destined for the best avenue of reclamation.

the country must add 1,000 acres of landfill space each year just to keep pace with the growing flow of waste

Individuals are also helping to reduce the landfill glut—sometimes in unique ways. Oakland-based artist and sculptor Gregory Kloehn is turning trash into homes for the homeless. “The Homeless Home Project is an asymmetrical approach to modern living where collective ideas, goodwill and basic construction skills unite to repurpose the abundance of everyday garbage into viable living space,” Kloehn wrote in his blog.

Similar efforts by a broad cross-section of government agencies, corporations and individuals will ensure continued progress toward the ultimate goal of reducing the amount of the nation’s waste that ends up in landfills to zero.

Reducing your waste is the key to preserving green space. Learn more about Subaru and the National Parks Zero Landfill Initiative, which ultimately aims to help reduce visitor-generated waste in our national parks that ends up in landfills. Join the conversation and share your own tips using #DontFeedTheLandfills

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