Trash or Treasure?

June 16, 2009

What happens when you throw away your trash? It takes a ride on a truck and then gets dumped at a landfill never to be heard of again… right? Well, that is only partially true. A significant part of your carbon footprint may be related to not only what you consume, but also what you throw away. The Modern Landfill and Methane Most landfills in the US are highly regulated and complex entities. They have amazingly strong linings to prevent leachate (the toxic goo that accumulates as all sorts of trashes mix) from reaching the ground water. They are capped every day with soil to keep the local air quality as un-stinky as possible and to minimize the birds and other animals picking at the trash. And they create massive amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The process by which methane is created in landfills is a direct result of the safety measures that protect our air quality and ground water. By sealing our landfills, we are essentially preventing any air from reaching our trash. If you remember your chemistry lessons, you know that when biological materials decompose in the absence of oxygen, one of the results is methane. And if you assume that about 1/3rd of our everyday trash is compostable biological stuff like coffee grinds, orange peels and pizza crusts — that is a lot of methane and a lot of climate change pollution Separate Your Trash How can we keep our trash from heating our planet? Compost and recycle. By composting all organic materials, you are keeping the methane producing biological stuff out of landfills. This also helps to reduce the total amount of leachate in a landfill (because this stuff is generally wet and icky), reducing the potential for leachate to reach your local water supply. There are many cities in North America that have started municipal composting programs to help you do this. Toronto, Guelph, Halifax, and San Francisco all provide their residents with ‘green bins’ to collect organic waste. The end result is that there is less waste going to landfills, less methane, and high quality compost mulch / fertilizer that can be used for all agricultural needs — did I forget to mention that composting organic materials creates awesome compost? That is certainly a plus. Offset The Rest Most places don’t do municipal organic waste collection, so what should you do? If you can, set up your own back yard composting system. It is relatively cheap, easy and can certainly provide you with a reliable source of compost for your garden. You can also support projects that capture and harness the power of landfill methane. supports some projects that capture and utilize the methane created at landfills.