by Mark Haubner
I always enjoyed going to what we used to call ‘the dump’ when I was a kid — free bicycles, cabinets, car parts — all the trash my grandmother told me was another man’s treasure. We are now more politically correct and it’s not ‘the dump’ but ‘the landfill’ now — but we are still dumping, like it or not. And standing below the 300-foot mountain of the Brookhaven landfill again this month and not seeing a whole lot of ‘good stuff’ anymore, I realized that we have been fouling our own nest for a lot of decades.
The Short-Term Life of Garbage
The last two landfills on Long Island are closing by 2024, a mere two years from now, and we are capping them with crushed glass, which not only has no market value, we have to pay to get rid of it. Ironically, the EPA does not consider glass a ‘recyclable material’ but rather a ‘repurposeful material’ which means it can be recycled almost an infinite number of times, unlike aluminum which has a recycle life of 11 times and paper about 7 before it is of no value at all.
Of no value? I look at the way the world works when we do not interfere with it — the trees grow and nourish the soil when they drop their leaves in place. Cows poop just about anywhere they please and plants and soil are both provided for. Human beings are the only entity which creates true waste — even rocks degrade into sand and can act as a carbon sink over long periods of time.
The Medium-Term Fate of Garbage
Meanwhile, we are faced with sending whatever is not dumped into the landfill to the giant incinerators on our island — incinerators which produce carbon emissions and toxic ash, which is then either taken back to dwindling space in the landfill or put in a truck to take up space in land of no regard in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio. (Remember ‘the Garbage Barge of Long Island’ back in the 1987? Have you ever seen a flatbed truck on the Expressway with 2-ton bales of garbage sturdily wrapped in giant sheets of thick fiberglass to be preserved for a thousand years?)
Project Drawdown identifies the sources and volumes of both carbon dioxide and methane coming from our waste in the thousands of tons every day. Food waste, construction debris, storm debris, unrecovered recyclable materials and incinerator ash are the basic components, and we know what the numbers are on our island. The threat from the waste itself is great, but being forced to load it all into trucks to roll on our already-intolerably-congested highways is even greater. Brake dust and tire particles and diesel fumes are the other side of the human health equation and it’s all toxic.
The Long-Term Success of Garbage
In long discussions with people who know the waste industry, we are of the mind that we cannot recycle our way out of this mess and that we have to reduce the sheer amounts of waste that everyone produces every day. One-third of household waste is food waste. One-fourth of municipal waste is construction debris. Another one-third is general household waste.
While it will take massive amounts of thought and time and effort, we must adopt a mindset that mirrors the way the planet herself works (biomimicry) and create a system which doesn’t just recycle easy-to-identify materials, but a system which is circular in nature and which feeds all of the stops along the way.
There is an opportunity for the building of several glass repurposing facilities and for cottage industries which use the feedstock of recovered glass.
Food waste, when properly combined with yard waste, becomes an amazingly rich compost and at the next stage of production becomes what is marketed in other states as Milorganite. This is another opportunity for Long Islanders, which only scratches the surface of economic benefit.
Our Work is Cut Out for Us
We can easily reduce our household food waste; we can induce our elected representatives to constructively address these issues; we can adopt building designs which create buildings which can be dismantled at the end of their useful life; and we can create a community-building Repair Café which avoids having our possessions become garbage. Becoming a Zero Waste society will start not when we create a law or a recovery center but when we become true stewards of everything we consume, from extraction to manufacture to the day we have to part with these things.
We are at the point when we need to stop running in circles and start thinking in cycles.
Mark Haubner has been recycling newspaper since 1965, and not seeing his example being followed by everyone on the planet, started learning Science Communication in earnest about 6 years ago. He got a Certificate in Sustainability and Behavior Change from the University of California at San Diego (the daily commute was grueling) and now writes Community Based Social Marketing programs for the various nonprofits with which he is involved.
Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and Drawdown East End, whose mission is to inspire local solutions to reverse global warming. | DrawdownEastEnd.org