Today’s class highlight features an article Sam wrote in Environmental Issues about Chewonki’s Zero Waste initiative. Get the nitty gritty details about the life cycle of trash and the Zero Waste Challenge for Maine middle schools through Chewonki’s interactive Zero Waste Poster.
There’s been a lot of talk going on at Chewonki about achieving zero waste. New snacks are being made in the kitchen to reduce packaging, we played a game on recycling, and we discussed the possibility of consolidating bathroom supplies to reduce packaging. Zero Waste is surely a noble goal, but I find myself asking “Why?” What is it exactly about zero waste that is so desirable? The obvious answer is that creating less waste is better for the environment. However, I’d like to go a little further into detail about what happens to the waste that isn’t recycled and why we should eliminate it.
80% of the waste the U.S. creates ends up in a landfill. A landfill is essentially a hole in the ground where waste is stored. The basic purpose is simply to keep waste out of the way. There are no additional benefits taken from the waste. It is simply removed from sight. It seems counterintuitive that the most common method of waste disposal utilizes waste for profit the least. The reason: it’s cheaper and easier.
In the past, landfills have almost always cost less than recycling. In a 1994 study by Franklin Associates, Ltd. it was found that the average national cost of curbside recycling was $114 per ton, while trash collection for landfills was only $71. Also, recycling requires more effort than simply throwing garbage out. Recycling generally requires that trash be sorted into numerous categories and processed separately. When a large company takes out the garbage, all they have to do is sort hazardous from non-hazardous, a less arduous and costly task. However, landfills are very damaging to the environment.
Landfills take up large amounts of land and alter the ecosystems they are present in. Also, despite the safety regulations on their construction, with time landfills often begin to leak a harmful substance generally referred to as leachate. Leachate is a liquid that usually forms because of rainwater leaking into a landfill and mixing with the chemicals within. It is often, though not always, highly toxic. Leachate can contaminate local groundwater, causing great damage to the nearby ecosystems and making water unsuitable for human consumption.
The cost efficiency of landfills does not extend to the common consumer, and often depends on local or state laws. In New York, recycling of metal and glass was reintroduced after all in-state landfills were closed because it cost too much to send the glass and metal to an out of state landfill. Michael Shapiro, director of the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, stated that “A well-run curbside recycling program can cost anywhere from $50 to more than $150 per ton…trash collection and disposal programs, on the other hand, cost anywhere from $70 to more than $200 per ton.” Thus, it is clear that landfills are not always as cost effective as other options.
10% of the trash that we throw away is instead incinerated. When trash is incinerated, the energy from the fire is used to create electricity or heat. In a manner similar to a coal-fired power plant. The heat turns water into steam, which rises and spins a turbine, generating electricity. This method of waste disposal at least uses the waste for some purpose. However, it has numerous issues. For one, it is something of a risk for a company to create a trash incinerator. They need to be insured of a steady price of electricity, a steady customer base, and a steady supply of trash. These things are difficult to guarantee, and so companies rarely invest in incineration. Also, the practice of burning trash is environmentally deplorable. It releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, not to mention trace amounts of mercury and other toxic substances. Thus, incineration is not a viable solution on its own.
All of the waste that goes into our landfill bins at Chewonki eventually ends up either in a landfill (as you might guess) or put into an incinerator. Only 10% of the waste produced in America is recycled (EPA). Recycling is a process in which old materials are remade into something else. Plastic bottles are made into tables; metal cans are melted down for other purposes, etc. When a material is recycled, it is not being treated as waste; it is being treated as a resource in itself.
The benefits of recycling are numerous. When you recycle an object instead of throwing it out, you are keeping it in use. The object still serves a useful purpose. This reduces the amount of new resources we need to take from the environment. Why take more when we already have it here? It also reduces the amount of trash that is going into landfills or incinerators.
Recycling has a minimal impact on the environment. The recycling of wood or paper sometimes involves the usage of hazardous chemicals, but recycling all in all has much less of an effect on the environment than filling the earth with trash or setting garbage on fire. Also, recycling means that less energy is used in the creation of finished products. It takes 95% less energy to recycle an aluminum can than to get the aluminum from any other source.
The main disadvantages to recycling include the fact that not everything can be recycled. Many of the materials our society uses today simply cannot be remade into another useful object, and so they must be trashed. Also, when wood and paper are recycled, they begin to deteriorate and lose their usefulness over time. When recycling is done, though, it is invariably better for the environment.
Cost efficiency has been an issue in the past with recycling. However, the average cost of recycling is now less than the cost of throwing things into the landfill for the average consumer. It costs from $50-150 for every ton of recycled waste versus $70-200 for simple landfilling. These costs only apply to consumers or small-scale businesses, however. The numbers work a little differently for larger scale businesses, so they tend to recycle less.
The average person in America recycles about 34% of their waste. However, only 10% of our nation’s waste is recycled. The reason for this difference is that it is easier to recycle on a small scale than a large scale due to the need for jobs for people to organize waste to be recycled.
When a system is a Zero Waste system, it means that none of the system’s trash is put into a landfill or incinerated. All of the waste is eventually recycled. This is the most environmentally friendly and sustainable form of waste management, but also one of the most difficult to achieve. Zero Waste requires that all waste be recyclable (which includes composting). To do that, you need to be very careful about what you buy. Packaging accounts for 30.3% of all municipal waste sources, the largest single source within the stream. Thus, we must avoid purchasing products with excessive and/or non-recyclable packaging. Buying in bulk is also advised, as that tends to reduce the amount of packaging.
When we have a material that is not recyclable, we must find another use for it. To insure that Chewonki produces no waste, we must insure that everything used by Chewonki is reused as much as possible, and then recycled. I know it’s cliché, but remembering the three R’s is the most surefire method of bringing our waste to zero. Reduce-purchase as little material as possible-Reuse-don’t let anything leave campus that we could still do something with-and Recycle. If we can manage to universalize all three within our campus, then we will achieve our goal of Zero Waste, and become a more environmentally friendly and sustainable community.
– Sam Schwehm, Boothbay ME