A day in the life of your trash

ImageBy Summer 2013 Intern Jen Crino

A week ago, I was finally able to convince my parents to start composting.

To my surprise, my whole family was incredibly enthusiastic to learn about the process. This sparked the question, though – where did all of these food scraps and organic matter go before we had started composting?

As a college student studying environmental processes, I was bothered that I could only give them a bare-bones description of landfills and the different procedures that occur there, so I decided to do some research.

After a quick search, I found the EPA’s 2011 Municipal Solid Waste Report that showed the U.S. generated 250 million tons of trash in that year but composted and recycled 87 million of this amount, maintaining a 34.7% recycling rate.[1]

The EPA’s 2011 Municipal Solid Waste Report also found that organic materials are still the largest component of the recorded municipal waste. Paper, paperboard, yard trimmings and food waste alone account for 56% of the municipal waste generated in the U.S. in2011, although organic materials are also the foremost items involved in municipal solid waste recovery.[2]

This information still wasn’t entirely satisfying. Since I’m a summer intern for Green Seal, my mind immediately went to D.C. – are there municipal waste landfills close by, and if so, what goes on in them?

As far as Green Seal is concerned, there are no landfills directly in Washington D.C., but there are 263 total in the surrounding Mid-Atlantic areas of Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.[3] The great majority of these landfills have matured in past decades – what were once open dumps have now transformed into carefully regulated, covered landfills.

A modern landfill consists of disposal cells and a system for collecting leachate (pronounced: leech-ate), a liquid formed from decomposing wastes. Only one cell is open for collecting waste at a time and is completely covered by a sheet of dirt and organic matter in order to keep out animals and further decomposition. Many landfills also have ways to collect and harness the methane gas that is a natural result of the decomposition of waste.[4]

While many items can be recycled or incinerated to reduce solid waste, for the most part it’s certain that a banana peel thrown in the trash will end up right next to an old sneaker or DVD player in the same landfill. What bothers me the most is the casual discarding of organic waste, like food and yard trimmings, because they can easily be composted in order to reduce waste in landfills. An incredible amount of waste is tossed in landfills at alarming rates, regardless of it being organic matter or old clothing or electronics.

Green Seal addresses this problem head on in the GS-55 Sustainable Restaurant Standard. GS-55 requires food donations of materials that are still readily available for human or animal consumption, as well as requiring a fats, oils and grease recycling plan. For a Gold rating of the Standard, restaurant management is required to compost all pre- and post-consumer food waste, as well as to recycle all reusable solid waste (paper, metal, plastic, etc), and to eliminate non-essential disposable products. While the Standard goes into far greater detail in their overall waste reduction plan, even these few requirements will make huge decreases in landfill waste. The Standard has the potential to make a sizeable dent in the amount of organic materials wasted by the restaurant industry. This kind of plan is the only logical next step to reducing waste in landfills and our environmental impact.

[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_508_053113_fs.pdf, pg.1

[2] http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/MSWcharacterization_508_053113_fs.pdf, pg. 4

[3] http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/landfill/section3.pdf

[4] http://www.epa.gov/osw/education/quest/pdfs/unit2/chap4/u2-4_landfills.pdf