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Let's Talk About Trash
By Joanna Patzig
“There is no such thing as away. When we throw anything away, it must go somewhere.” - Annie Leonard
“The wilderness needs no defense, only defenders.” - Edward Abbey
There’s a lot to think about in the news right now, and it’s easy to overlook our own political and ecological impact because of greater human rights concerns (elections, abortion bills, natural disasters, etc.) But lately, little things like the trash I produce have been weighing on me, like a physical manifestation of the environmental emergencies we are facing. To be honest, I actually produce a lot of trash - at least a bag a week, plus recycling. According to the latest EPA data the U.S. produced 254 million tons of trash in 2013 (that’s more than 4 pounds a person, per day) and I’m a part of that ever increasing number. So I wanted to know where waste and recycling really goes in my community, how it affects the planet, and what I can do to be a more responsible citizen. I’ve been specifically researching my home, Richmond Virginia, but hopefully this super simple breakdown will be helpful to anyone, who like me, doesn’t normally think about trash.
Where We Stand
It’s easy not to think about waste, because we have systems to deal with it, and we are used to trash as a part of our conventional consumerist lives. Right now, Richmond has an impressive pick up system so most people rarely have to go to the dump themselves. Richmond received a large grant in 2017 from the Recycling Partnership to upgrade our recycling program, so most homes in the city have complementary 95 gallon bins. FYI - these bins have a tracking mechanism that lets you get perks from local businesses as a reward for recycling - check to see if it’s in your city too! It’s great to see recycling being incentivized.
Richmond has single stream recycling, which means that recyclable items (cardboard, steel and aluminum cans, mixed paper, narrow neck plastic bottles, plastics number 1-7 with lids and caps, wax coated cartons, and glass bottles and jars) don’t need to be sorted, they can all be thrown into the same bin. These programs are super convenient, but they also makes it easy to dismiss the harmful effects of material waste on the environment, and some of them are becoming less sustainable.
For a long time, a large percentage of the worlds recycling was imported by China to use in industry, but due to low quality and overwhelming imports, China banned the practice in 2018. As a result, communities are still figuring out how to manage trash domestically, or find other buyers despite lacking infrastructure. In my hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia, the county has recently started accepting only plastic types #1 and #2 because they cannot find a market for other weaker plastics. Waste is now sometimes shipped to poorer south Asian countries including Malaysia and Thailand, where the non recyclable waste is often burned. These changes mean that more plastics are ending up in landfills and in the ocean than ever. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans generate about ten million tons of plastic a year and only 1-2% of it is actually recycled.
So most of the packaging, food waste, appliances, etc, that we dispose of end up in landfills. Landfills are engineered dumping spaces for trash that pose many ecological threats. Landfills release methane and carbon dioxide from organic waste into the air which contributes significantly to global warming, and they can also potentially leak harmful chemicals into the water. But a lot of trash doesn’t make it to the dump, and ends up going through streams and rivers into the ocean.
By now, you may have seen a video of marine life struggling free from plastic or even maimed by something, whether its a bag, or straw, or one of those things that holds six packs. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s just a surface sign of how damaging plastic is to our oceans. Plastic can take centuries to break down, and it breaks into very small parts as it photodegrades. These particles end up in drinking water, and work their way through the food chain as they are consumed by fish. There is so much plastic in the ocean that plastic particles outnumber microplankton 36 to 1. Larger pieces of trash also build up, both on the ocean floor and in island like areas. For instance, scientists are studying what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is dense gyre of at least 80,000 tons of trash; it’s about twice the size of Texas. Even the wildlife of Richmonds own James River is impacted by litter and dangerous runoff.
I could go on, but for now, take my word for it - trash (especially plastic) is bad. The question is not how we dispose of it, because material waste has a permanence and scale that makes our attempts to manage it nearly impossible. To get to the root of the problem, we have to ask ourselves how we can create less trash.
A Note on The Struggle
Because of the state of waste management, there have been recent movements to remove single use plastics like drinking straws from our culture, and even movements to live completely waste free. These big cultural changes are not without challenges; it’s really difficult to avoid making trash in our society today. I’m going to describe some ways we as individual consumers can take responsibility for our own environmental impact, but ultimately we need to organize change on a national level to end our environmentally degrading practices. It’s important to understand that creating less waste may involve monetary and physical accessibility that is not available to everyone right now, and that needs to change.
Local Resources, and Plans of Action
First off, the Richmond Public Works website is a great reference for locals to keep up to date on e-cycling events and other special services. It’s important to take care of the waste that you do produce responsibly, and these services are handy. There is also a page that lists community gardens where you can bring compost.
In addition to municipal resources, there are also amazing thrift shops in Richmond and online. By donating unwanted goods to thrift shops, you not only give a second life to the material, you also help the community by helping provide affordable things. My favorite thrift shops in Richmond (Diversity Thrift, Circle Thrift, Rumors, and Fan Tastic Thrift, just to name a few) often have clothes and products in great condition. Celebrities like Olivia Wilde are supporting used clothes because it is a great way to cut down on fiber waste, which is actually fairly dangerous. If you do need or want to buy something new, invest in ethically made, long lasting high quality things, or compostable/recyclable/repairable goods.
Packaging is also a really big source of trash and plastic. Buying locally, buying in bulk, and buying things in recyclable containers are all great ways to cut down on your trash footprint. It may even be more affordable in the long run. Invest in some tupperwares or glass containers that you can reuse. I’ve started to carry a metal fork and a cloth napkin in my purse on days when I can’t avoid getting takeout. If you really want to get into Zero Waste there are a lot of great blogs about it to help you transition. Keep in mind that while the movement advocates creating no waste at all, even cutting down the waste you create by a couple coffee cups a week helps keep plastic out of the ocean. All it takes is a thermos.
In addition to personal practices, there are a lot of ways to advocate for more responsible materialism. Some organizations like Waste Zero propose a pay-as-you-throw system which would require citizens to be financially responsible for the amount of waste they throw out when they bring it to the dump. This incentivizes people to make less trash, and early studies have shown it to be effective. Another initiative to work towards is bringing a municipal compost system into place.
Some states have banned or taxed plastic bags, and we could do the same with other single use plastics. Sidenote - plastic bags are terrible! They CANNOT be recycled and when they are thrown into the recycling they mess up the whole system, it’s a big problem. Some grocery stores have a recycling bin in the front of the store for them and that’s fine, but a reusable bag is a one time investment that can really make things easier. If you have one take away from this article, honestly, just stop using and trying to recycle plastic bags. Another surprisingly harmful material is synthetic fiber like nylon - it makes microfibers that end up in the water every time you wash them. Cotton and natural fibers are a safer option.
If pollution is bumming you out or if you have more questions, get involved with the community. In Richmond I’ve noticed a lot of movements to consider materials more ethically. Gallery 5 has just started a monthly sustainability panel, see more details here. There’s also a Sustainable RVA Zero Waste Initiative facebook page to check out here.
Better yet, start researching the zero-waste lifestyle. This handy zero-waste guide breaks everything down into doable steps and sections, which great if you're new to the eco-friendly way of life!
A lot of what I learned about waste management really kind of scared me. In the last year it’s become more apparent and more accepted that we are living on the brink of an environmental crisis. I am only just starting to understand what means for me and how I can personally make changes. Making less waste will be a journey, but the material I’ve found online has made it less intimidating. I hope that this information is useful to you as well, and I’ll try to write more about this issue and my experiences with trash in the future. Let me know if there are any resources I missed so we can share the care!
Zero Waste Introductions
Landfills and Ocean Conservancy
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