This article will be published in the Teton Valley News on July 9, 2015. It is republished with permission.
We all have trash and probably multiple trash bins located throughout your home and workplace, making trash disposal convenient, right? In fact, the average American produces about 4 pounds of landfill-bound garbage every day. Multiply that by three hundred million Americans, and it’s probably safe to say that we have an addiction to trash. It’s easy to recognize the trash phenomenon. Simply look in your pantry or take a walk through a grocery store and you’ll begin to recognize stuff that ends up in the trashcan literally everywhere. You’ll notice trash in places it doesn’t belong, like in our rivers, alongside roads, and even in the wilderness when recreating. You probably have a sense, too, that all that trash isn’t a good thing; but why is it so “bad” for our environment and public health, anyway?
To begin to answer this question, let’s briefly examine the dirty inner workings of landfills. Nowadays, when non-recycled and unsorted household trash is hauled to the Teton County Transfer Station (aka “the dump”), it is weighed and collected, and eventually hauled off 50 miles away to the Mud Lake Landfill in Jefferson County. There, your garbage is buried in a very large pit in the ground that is covered by a plastic liner. This liner is basically a ground cloth that’s designed to protect the earth underneath from harmful soil and water contaminants. However, there’s a troublesome problem with landfills (even the newly designed and sophisticated landfills with liners, pumps, and filtration systems). Over time, a smelly, rancid liquid called “leachate” begins to trickle through all of the garbage, where it pools at the bottom. This smelly slurry of nastiness includes liquefied food and rain, in addition to many harmful substances such as household chemicals that have leaked out of their containers. Improperly-disposed of hazardous waste, like battery acid, car oil, pesticides, and paint thinner are also part of this toxic chemical mixture. This environmental hazard is why both Teton County landfills in Driggs, ID and in Jackson, WY are now closed. A study conducted by Leak Location Services in 2000 found that 82 percent of surveyed landfills had leaks.* When a landfill liner ages, becomes brittle, and leaks, leachate seeps into the ground and runs into our waterways, causing water and soil pollution.
The release of methane gas into the air is another filthy problem with landfills. Decomposing food and organic materials in landfills releases methane, which as a greenhouse gas is 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Our landfills are the single largest producer of methane emissions in the U.S. and produce almost a quarter of America’s total methane emissions (U.S. EPA). Methane is produced when garbage in landfills biodegrades in an anaerobic (“oxygen-less”) environment. The good news is that if you compost your food scraps, paper, and yard waste, the byproduct of aerobic (“oxygen-rich”) decomposition produces carbon dioxide, which is less harmful of a gas. Compost is also a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Anybody can learn to compost and may find that it is rather easy! With support from the Community Foundation of Teton Valley’s Youth Philanthropy Grant Program and Grand Targhee Resort’s Protect Our Winters Grant Program, Teton Valley Community Recycling will be holding both an upcoming outdoor composting workshop on August 15 and an indoor vermicomposting (red worm) workshop later this fall. Stay tuned for registration information at tetonrecycling.org.
Although it may seem not so bad to send all of your garbage to one place where you can contain the smell and eyesores of rotting trash, the reality is that landfills are NOT giant compost piles. Your trash does not slowly break down and disappear. When trash is continuously piled up and covered with more and more waste, the lack of exposure to sunlight and oxygen creates an anaerobic decomposition environment leading to leachate and methane byproducts. These chemical pollutants harm us, as well as the plants and animals in our community. This is good reason to decrease our addiction to trash and toxic chemicals by examining your garbage bins, and work towards ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
*Reference: Korst, Amy. The Zero Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2012.
Jen Werlin is the Executive Director of Teton Valley Community Recycling. For more information about waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, and/or to become involved with our community-wide efforts to reduce litter and landfill waste, please visit tetonrecycling.org.