How can we make better decisions when it comes to what we consume and then throw out? We live in a society of consumerism that creates products to be used once and then put in the trash can. But what if we gave what we buy, and then often dispose of, a little extra thought?
A hierarchy of waste was created to help us decide what to do with what we buy. The first step is not to buy too much in the first place, to reduce our purchases. If I don’t have my travel mug with me, should I still get a latte? Do you need to accept the bag given at the grocery store or can you bring your own, or simply carry out your few purchases? What about those Post-Its you use every day. Can you use scratch paper instead?
The next step is to reuse whatever you do buy. Did you get an iced coffee today? Can you reuse that cup for clean and pure tap water instead of buying a bottle of water later? Did you buy some jam from the farmer’s market? Could you put that jar in the dishwasher and then use it as a drinking glass or flower vase instead of putting it into the recycle bin? Reuse also includes giving your object a new home. Can you give it away so someone else can use it? Think of that old pair of shoes or sweater you don’t wear anymore. Might it be time for a Goodwill or Salvation Army run?
After reducing and reusing what we can, are we able to recycle whatever we bought? Much of Maine has single-sort recycling that allows us to mix together dry paper products, cardboard, plastics, metals and all glass. One common misconception is that pizza boxes can’t be recycled. They can, as long as they aren’t covered in grease and cheese! So can your cereal boxes, juice cartons, cans and bottles, soup boxes and so much more!
Then comes the most fascinating piece: compost or digestion of unwanted natural material. Here, organic waste is turned back into either soil or electricity, respectively. Composting food scraps in an outdoor backyard or industrial system, an Earth Mover setup or under your counter with worms yields high-nutrient soil and a second life for those cornhusks, carrot tops, fruit peels and cores. Anaerobic digestion is more complicated but absolutely mind-blowing. Food scraps are mixed with cow manure up in Exeter, Maine then mixed and heated for three weeks, all the while producing methane. That methane is captured by a rubber membrane and collected, then sent to a generator to create electricity. The fibers left over are squeezed of most liquids and thus creates inert animal bedding for the dairy cows on the campus’ Stoneyvale Farm. The liquid becomes liquid gold for the farm: nutrient-rich fertilizer. This helps the food grow for the cows, which make manure to mix with the food waste, a valuable stabilizing agent. Full circle cycle of nutrient recycling!
If it’s not from the earth and therefore able to go back to the earth through composting or digesting, the next step on the Waste Hierarchy is Waste-to-Energy. These facilities are essentially renewable electricity creating factories. Here, trash is brought in by individuals and giant trucks alike and dropped on the tipping floor. From here, a monstrous crane lifts 4,000 pounds per grab to deposit into a boiler for incineration. This fire completely burns trash into ash, thus reducing original volume by 90%. Steam is created from the fire’s heat through water tubes in the boiler and is pushed through a generator, forcibly creating electricity for 15,000 homes! Toxic gases inevitably created are nullified through chemical additions such as urea, carbon and lyme.
The last step that should ever be taken is to throw something in the trash who’s destination is a landfill. “Trash Mountain” is what I’ve heard landfills called and it’s a spot-on description. Landfilling might be a cheap alternative to any other form of waste management process but what are you actually paying for? The waste put in these trash storage bunkers never turn into anything other than atmosphere-harming methane gas and nasty leachate. Trash never breaks down into soil as happens in compost/digestion processes or turned into a new product as happens with recycling.
When you buy something new, whether it’s a bag of almonds, a new pair of jeans or a bunch of bananas, think of the end of life process of that item. Will it be reused, recycled, composted, sent to a waste-to-energy facility or simply end up at a landfill to lay dormant and unused for eternity…Think about it, for the good of everyone on this one and only Earth.