Portland's average household produces about 1326 pounds of garbage per year--which is significantly less than the American average of up to 1700 lbs per year per person. That's over 520 billion pounds of trash per year, just in America. And where does all that garbage go? Most of it ends up in landfills, the number one means of waste "management" in our country. We don't see it, of course, since we have nifty little trucks that come every week to take care of our dirty business, but imagine if we had to live amidst this kind of scene:
It's kind of disgusting, right?
But here's the worst part: a huge percentage of the stuff that goes to landfills doesn't need to be there. The EPA estimates that up to 40% of our landfills is simply paper that could have been recycled. 23% is potential compost, which could have been put back into our gardens for better soil. And that kind of stuff--stuff that could easily break down if treated correctly--is likely to stay for years and years and years in a landfill, simply because conditions there don't favor the breakdown of organic material.
Most landfills are lined with plastic or clay and then capped, which means that sunlight, moisture, and oxygen, the three things necessary for decomposition, are severely lacking. So a newspaper--you know how quickly newspaper can disintegrate in your yard, for example--can last for 15 years of longer; an apple core, which would decompose in about 2 months in your compost bin, can last for years. And in the meantime, that landfill, holding all the junk, is emitting between 40 and 70 million tons of methane a year. Yikes, right?
Luckily, there's stuff to be done. A few ideas:
1) Switch your garbage collection. James and I just switched our garbage service so that our trash only gets picked up once a month (our recycling and green waste, on the other hand, still come every week). Knowing that our tiny garbage can has to last us a whole months means that we're much more conscious about what we throw away (and as an extra bonus, we're now paying only a very small fraction of our past garbage bill). Most garbage collection agencies will also allow you to downsize your garbage can and pay a smaller collection rate.
2) Think about packaging. New toys, electronics, even food items are often a packaging nightmare. Be conscious of how much trash is coming along with whatever new exciting thing you're buying, and try to buy things that use less packaging. Relatedly,
3) Buy in bulk. James and I are lucky in that we have some really awesome grocery stores with hefty bulk sections by our house. We try our best to bring our own packaging--be it glass jars, old plastic bags, old plastic containers, whatever--with us to the store and carry home whatever we need in those. That way, we don't have to use bags from the store and when we get home there's very little that we have to throw away.
4) Compost. It pains me when I think of how long it takes something as innocuous as the apple core from my lunch to break down in a landfill. If I take it home and put it in my compost, on the other hand, it turns into rich, luscious soil I can add to my own garden in just a month or two. Yes, it was originally a pain for me to "pack out" my compost from school when it's so much easier to just throw it in the trash can, but after enough of feeling bad about it, its became just another habit to put my organic waste back in a tupperware, carry it home, and put it in my garden.
5) Recycle. Of course, it's best to not even use stuff in the first place if you can avoid it, but for when you have to use, please recycle what you can.
6) Advocate for community involvement. Portland is just now piloting a curbside compost collection program to help get all that great organic stuff out of landfills and into green recycling facilities. The result will be nutrient-rich soil that can be reused by landscapers and other agricultural users. It's like magic: take all your household scraps and create useful soil! It's still in its infancy, but because people here cared about reducing their waste, we're finding ways to make it feasible.
I'm sure there are a million other things to do as well. Feel free to add onto this list in the comments, or email me if you have any other suggestions. But seriously, guys, it's an easy problem to ignore since we aren't, in our lovely privileged position, forced to live amidst the filth we create. But that doesn't mean that we have a license to create it at will. People say it enough that it becomes kind of a cliche, but please, please think about our planet and your impact on it when you put your trash out of sight and out of mind. It doesn't just go away, as much as you'd like to believe it does.