We tend to view trash as burdensome and inconvenient, opting to get rid of it as easily and quickly as possible. We throw it into a plastic bag and leave it at the side of the road. A garbage truck comes to pick it up in the morning. It leaves behind a wake of rotting stench that disappears along with the trash in a matter of seconds. The trash is dumped into some landfill far away, and that’s it, right?
This mentality is the very reason we are now facing a trash crisis. Landfills all over the country are nearing maximum capacity and we are running out of space to put our waste. The Fresh Kills Landfill that serviced New York City was forced to close in 2001, and within the next six years, the landfill in Albany is expected to follow suit. The system of using landfills for waste disposal is fundamentally flawed and failing. What is more flawed, however, is society’s wasteful mindset that fuels this system.
Landfills are reaching maximum capacities because they were not designed to decompose waste, but to isolate it from the environment. All sides of a landfill are sealed to prevent contamination, which also prevents moisture and oxygen from coming into contact with the waste.
Without these factors, waste is unable to decompose and instead remains buried in the landfill for so long that it is essentially entombed forever. Normally, it takes newspapers only about six weeks to decompose, but some studies on landfills have found perfectly preserved newspapers with dates from over 40 years ago.
Instead of properly dealing with the waste we generate, we have created this system that allows us to take the easy way out, shove it aside and avoid it. This system represents society’s careless and selfish attitude regarding waste. I believe that we need to change this attitude.
We need to take responsibility for our waste and dispose of it in ways that mimic nature. In nature, nothing is ever truly wasted; everything given off as waste by one organism is utilized by another. Even the feces of an animal make for good soil fertilizer and the growth of healthy plants.
The human population can mimic nature by recycling its own trash into new products. Instead of throwing a plastic water bottle into a landfill where it will remain for a few hundred years, we can recycle it into another plastic bottle, or even a fleece jacket or carpet.
Recycling is not a new concept by any means, but in order for it to become extensive enough to solve our trash crisis, we must change our mindset about trash. Simply put, we need to stop viewing it as waste and realize that the things we throw away are resources that can — and should — be used again in the making of other things. With this mentality, “trash disposal” becomes the beautiful and natural act of “nutrient recycling,” just like what happens in nature.
I acknowledge that some objects don’t currently have a market for recycling, such as candy wrappers or paper plates contaminated by food. Changing our view of trash can help spur new initiatives. Empty ink cartridges, K-Cups and used Brita filters can now be shipped back to the production companies to be reused. Many more initiatives will come if only we address our waste culture.
In addition to becoming more conscious about recycling, I urge you to restructure your view of trash. Instead of viewing it as something to discard into the nearest garbage can as soon as possible, realize that all things contain value and potential to be reused. With this mentality, society will be better able to solve our trash crisis and ensure that the entire face of the earth is not some day consumed by mountains and mountains of trash.
Georgia Kerkezis is a sophomore majoring in environmental studies.