How can recycling minimize the impacts of landfills?

July 18th

Next time you throw something away, take a second to think about where it could end up. Will it end up on the street? In the ocean? In a landfill? No matter where it goes, there is the potential for your trash to cause harm to the environment. The landfill is the most common destination for your trash, but it also comes with great environmental risks.  

Municipal solid waste, MSW, consists of the everyday trash that comes from schools, businesses, homes and hospitals. This waste is transported to one of the 2,547 landfills that are active in the United States. On top of this, there are thousands of inactive landfills across the country that have been forgotten about due to being at capacity, or being developed into parks, homes, and commercial buildings. 

Once your trash is picked up and taken to the landfill, it is either thrown in a giant hole that contains a plastic lining to prevent leakage, or burned in an incinerator with a pollution cap to filter out pollutants. While safety precautions are put in place, they are never 100% safe.

When a new landfill is built, the first thing that goes into the ground is a plastic lining or compacted soil. This is done to hold in the liquids that come from burying trash. The EPA has stated that these liners “will ultimately fail” and the landfill will remain a hazard for thousands of years. Once the liners fail, toxins from the trash pile will seep into the ground polluting aquifers and damaging the soil. As mentioned before, these old landfills are then covered for development, exposing many to the harmful toxins in the soil and groundwater for years to come. A large quantity of the materials that go into a landfill can be recycled such as paper and plastics which according to the EPA, made up 39% of the total waste stream generated in 2015. These materials are easily recycled as most single stream recycling bins, both in private and public settings, accept them. So instead of throwing away your plastic fork or daily newspaper, toss it into the recycling and provide it another life while keeping natural resources in their place.

Incineration, while more efficient at reducing waste, comes with immediate negative environmental impacts. Pollution caps are put on incinerators to remove the larger particles but smaller particles such as carbon monoxide, mercury, and dioxin are still released. All of these toxins are known to cause cancer, brain damage, and kidney failure. Because landfills are not always located in secluded areas, these toxins are present in the air we breathe everyday. Incineration is a method commonly used for items such as glass and plastic, two of the major materials found in our waste stream that are also among two of the most common things to recycle. Whether you deposit it in a recycling bin or re-use it at home, the decision to recycle is preventing more carbon from being released.  

The effects of recycling are more than just limiting the amount of materials that end up in a landfill or incinerator. Recycling begins with getting rid of the need for new materials. This means that oil can stay in the ground and trees can stay standing. These may seem like minimal outcomes but furthermore, trees left standing mean less habitats are destroyed and oil in the ground means less water and air pollution stemming from the extraction and production process. The simple act of recycling allows for less space to be used for landfills which puts peoples health at risk and instead can be developed in more productive ways.

The next time you throw something away, think about the possible effect that throwing your trash away can have on the air you breathe or the water you drink. If your food scraps can be composted, then compost your food and use it for your home garden. If you metal soda cans can be recycled, then take it to the local recycling center and make some extra cash from it. Everyone has the ability to limit the amount of trash that goes into landfills by taking an extra second to think about ways to reuse their waste. Our recycling habits can have a major impact on environmental quality while giving trash a new life. 

Contributor: Jonathon Duffy