Throwing trash ‘away’

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Earlier this week, the city of Sheridan revealed its new trash compactor. The shiny yellow machine is just one of the ongoing efforts to extend the life of the landfill. I was surprised, after The Press published an article about the conservation project on July 17, to hear whisperings and see comments questioning the importance of the endeavor.

Why is it important? Because the average American generates 4.48 pounds of trash per day, according to the EPA. Because using land for trash is permanent. Because the amount of land for trash is finite.

Unless you are one of those impressive folks living that #zerowaste life, we are all a part of the same system. It’s easy to forget that there is no “away” when we throw trash into a can. But in reality, all of those food scraps, plastic bags, soda cans and more are dropped into landfills, continue to accumulate for about 10 years, then essentially are embalmed.

But doesn’t trash break down over time? Sure, organic materials (apple cores, grass clippings, etc.) decompose. However, since they are buried with little oxygen, the process is slow and produces noxious emissions such as methane. Other materials never disappear. They may gradually degrade if exposed to water, breaking down into smaller pieces of the same material. Plastic bags degrade over 10-20 years; aluminum cans degrade over 80-200 years. During the process, these materials can send still more toxins into our soil, water and air. In fact, landfills are the third largest contributor of atmospheric methane, according to the EPA, which is around 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Basically: The rate at which we create trash vastly exceeds the rate of decomposition and degradation, and the gradual break-down process is harmful to humans and the environment.

However, the point may be moot, city of Sheridan Utilities Director Dan Roberts told me. In most cases, trash doesn’t have the necessary decades and centuries of access to water and oxygen. Each landfill cell has a lifespan of about 10-15 years. When full, the cell is sealed with a cap in an attempt to shield humans and the environment from the harmful effects of its contents.

“Essentially, what you’re trying to create is a dry tomb,” Roberts said. “It’s not going to degrade much more than it already has.”

Enter: the city’s new compactor. The machine is capable of compacting 30% more waste, extending the lifespan of the current landfill cell, which is expected to be at capacity in 2026.

Of course, the best solution is to divert waste from the landfill altogether. This saves the city (and taxpayers) millions of dollars over the years — and, of course, significantly benefits the environment. Still, it can be hard to sell the old “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan.

“Diversion is not an immediate payback: It’s like a marathon,” Roberts told me. “The benefits of diverting today are realized years in the future, but that’s the responsible and good thing to do. You won’t see an immediate reduction on your waste bill because of it, but you will over time.”

Right now, only 33% of the Sheridan landfill’s waste is being diverted. The primary diverted materials are green waste, scrap metal and concrete; only 9% is household recyclables.

The city aims to increase diversion over the next five years. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to explore the different methods. Next up: recycling.

By |Jul. 19, 2019|

About the Author:

Caitlin Addlesperger started writing for The Sheridan Press as a 15-year-old youth reporter and continued her career as a college intern and then staff reporter. After nearly a decade spent in the writing, editing and marketing worlds in Italy and New York, she is back at The Press as the director of special projects, a role in which she aims to connect the newspaper with the community. Email Caitlin at caitlin.addlesperger@thesheridanpress.com.

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