By Dr. Mercola
When you pull your garbage can to the curb on garbage day, do you give much thought to what happens to it once it’s collected? Many take for granted the fact that their garbage “magically” disappears... but the disappearance is only an act.
Most garbage does not disappear; instead it is simply relocated to a landfill, a recycling center or perhaps makes its way down a storm drain and into a nearby ocean.
In Trashed, a 20-minute documentary, you can take “an existential road trip through the quixotic American waste stream,”1 and get an idea of what our throwaway society is truly costing the planet...
4.5 Pounds of Garbage a Day for Every American
This is the estimated waste thrown out by an average American, each and every day. In all this amounted to about 250 million tons of trash in the United States in 2010 alone.2 Trashed follows that waste from your garbage can to transfer stations and ultimately to incinerators or landfills that are quickly reaching their maximum limits.
There are problems with both waste disposal options, however:
- Incinerators: Emit toxic dioxins, mercury, cadmium and other particulate matter into the air, and convert waste into toxic ash (which is sometimes used to cover landfills).
- Landfills: There are more than 3,000 active landfills, and 10,000 old landfills, in the United States.3 While the number of landfills in the U.S. has been decreasing in recent decades, they have, individually, been increasing in size.
Along with being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, they produce “leachate,” a toxic fluid composed of pollutants like benzene, pesticides, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and more, which come from the compressed trash.
Although landfills are technically supposed to keep garbage dry and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater, the landfill liners are virtually guaranteed to degrade, tear, or crack eventually, allowing the toxins to escape directly into the environment.
In fact, women who live within two miles of a hazardous waste landfill are 33 percent more likely to have children with serious birth defects.4 Further, one study that tested the leachate from 58 landfills found cancer-causing chemicals in all of them, and noted that:5
“...the estimated carcinogenic potency for the leachate from some municipal landfills may be similar to the carcinogenic potency for the leachate from the Love Canal landfill [one of the worst hazardous waste landfill sites in history].”
Plastic Particles Pose Serious Risks to Oceans, Marine Life and Seabirds
Trashed takes viewers to U.S. coasts, where volunteers are picking up plastic waste that has washed up on the beaches. Some seabirds mistake brightly colored plastic lighters, toothbrushes and toys for food, consuming them or feeding them to their young, who end up dying. Loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. And the effects are disastrous, including internal blockages, dehydration, starvation, and potentially death.
Albatrosses are frequently found strangled by the plastic rings that hold six-packs of soda together. Other creatures meet a painful end by getting tangled up in plastic netting.
Plastic particles are like “sponges” for waterborne contaminants such as PCBs, pesticides like DDT, herbicides, PAHs, and other persistent organic pollutants. This phenomenon makes plastics far from benign, and scientists have yet to determine the full extent of the dangers posed by their consumption or the effects higher up the food chain.
While approximately 50 percent of plastic waste goes to landfills (where it will sit for hundreds of years due to limited oxygen and lack of microorganisms to break it down) the remaining 45 plus percent “disappears” into the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea, damaging marine ecosystems and entering the food chain.
The Biggest Landfills May Now Exist in the Oceans...
One of the biggest environmental assaults is the massive accumulation of plastic trash in each of the world’s five major oceanic gyres. Gyres are large, slowly rotating oceanic whirlpools, driven by global winds and ocean currents.6 Garbage and debris is funneled into the center of these gyres, in a kind of toilet bowl effect or vortex.
One of these gyres, the North Pacific Gyre, is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about a thousand miles from the Western coast. In its midst is a huge mass of trash (90 percent plastics), which floats in a soup of smaller pieces that have been broken apart by wave action.
Some call it the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and others the “Pacific Trash Vortex,” but regardless of its name, it’s the largest “landfill” in the world. In it you will find everything from plastic netting to bottles and bags and buckets, paint rollers, hula-hoops and medical equipment. Most of the garbage patch, however, is not made up of large items but rather microplastics you can’t see with the naked eye, forming a sort of plastic soup where pure seawater used to be. Filter-feeding marine animals ingest these plastic particles, and the toxins they contain, and subsequently pass them up through the food chain, and eventually to humans...
A Throwaway Society May be Throwing Away the Future
The sheer amount of waste that is generated needlessly on any given day is quite mind-boggling. For instance, according to the Clean Air Council:7
- The average American office worker uses about 500 disposable cups every year.
- Every year, Americans throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons to circle the equator 300 times.
- The estimated 2.6 billion holiday cards sold each year in the U.S. could fill a football field 10 stories high.
- Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, an extra million tons of waste is generated each week.
- 38,000 miles of ribbon are thrown away each year, enough to tie a bow around the Earth.
Your parents and grandparents likely used products in reusable, recyclable or degradable containers made from glass, metals and paper. But today, discarded plastics and other waste are circling the globe at a significant human and environmental cost.
It’s a problem of convenience – choosing a plastic disposable water bottle instead of using a reusable glass container, for instance – as well as one of overconsumption. Even durable items like electronics, toys, and clothes are often regarded as “throwaway” products that we use for a short period and quickly replace – often without recycling, donating or re-using them for another purpose.
Of course, you are living in a society that makes you feel behind if you do not buy the latest model of this or that, or update your wardrobe with the latest fashions. We’re also increasingly living on the go, where food in throwaway packages is by far the rule rather than the exception. Contrast that to a couple of generations ago when frugality and resourcefulness were highly valued, and food came fresh from the farm, butcher shop or baker, and you begin to see where the real problems with excess waste are springing from.
Cutting Down on Waste: It’s Your Responsibility
As the Trashed documentary pointed out, it’s going to take global efforts to change the way trash is being generated and disposed of, but every individual can play a part in that change. You can do your part by taking the following action steps that reduce your plastic consumption and generation of waste, which will benefit your health as well as the environment.
- Reduce your plastic use: If at all possible seek to purchase products that are not made from or packaged in plastic. Here are a few ideas... Use reusable shopping bags for groceries. Bring your own mug for coffee and bring drinking water from home in glass water bottles, instead of buying bottled water. Store foods in the freezer in glass mason jars as opposed to plastic bags. Take your own leftovers container to restaurants. Request no plastic wrap on your newspaper and dry cleaning. Avoid disposable utensils and buy foods in bulk when you can. These are just a few ideas — I’m sure you can think of more.
- Recycle/Repurpose what you can: Take care to recycle and repurpose products whenever possible, especially ones that are not available in anything other than plastic. This includes giving your clothes or gently used household items to charities, and frequenting second-hand stores instead of buying new. Make use of online sites like Freecycle.org that allow you to give products you no longer need away to others instead of throwing them away.
- Choose reusable over single-use: This includes non-disposable razors, washable feminine hygiene products for women, cloth diapers, glass bottles for your milk, cloth grocery bags, handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues, an old t-shirt or rags in lieu of paper towels, and so on.
- Compost your food scraps and yard waste: A simple bin in your backyard can greatly cut down on your landfill contributions while rewarding you with a natural fertilizer for your soil.
- Support legislation: Support legislative efforts to manage waste in your community; take a leadership role with your company, school, and neighborhood.
- Be Innovative: If you have a great idea, share it! Your capacity to come up with smarter designs and creative ideas is limitless, and many heads are better than one. Innovations move us toward a more sustainable world.
- Assist Recovery: Return deposits on bottles and other plastic products, and participate in “plastic drives” for local schools, where cash is paid by the pound.