Who Actually Constructs A Landfill? You Might Be Surprised

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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans produce about 4.4 pounds of garbage daily. That’s around 1,600 pounds a year!

Americans represent 5 percent of the world’s population, but generate 30 percent of its garbage. Less than 2 percent of the waste stream in the U.S. gets recycled. Yet a large percentage of what’s landfilled is recyclable.

According to a report from the University of Utah’s School of ArchitectureAmericans waste billions of pounds of materials per year. That includes:

  • 5 billion pounds of carpet that’s landfilled
  • 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts
  • 28 billion pounds of discarded food
  • 710 billion pounds of hazardous waste
  • 0.7 trillion pounds of construction debris

We throw out enough wood to heat 5 million homes for 200 years. Almost 40 percent of material in our landfills is paper.

A large percentage of what we toss into landfills could be recycled – by us. Since its inception in the 1970’s, the recycling movement has been growing yet there are still cities without mandatory recycling.

Let’s examine what ends up in landfills

Aluminum takes 200-500 years to fully degrade in a landfill. Recycling aluminum takes 95 percent less energy than making it from raw materials. And aluminum cans be recycled many times, providing a continual supply of recycled aluminum.

Glass takes 1,000,000 years to fully degrade in a landfill. One ton of recycled glass saves 7.5 pounds of air pollutants from being released into the air and 5 gallons of oil.

Plastic takes up to 1,000 years to fully degrade. Americans throw away 35 billion plastic bottles every year and only 25 percent of the plastic produced in this country gets recycled! We would save 1 billion gallons of oil and 44 million cubic yards of landfill space annually if we recycled the other 75 percent.

And who knew 500,000 trees are used to produce 88 percent of Sunday newspapers – many of which aren’t recycled. We toss out 4.5 million tons of office paper every year. If we recycled one ton of paper, we’d save 380 gallons of oil and 7,000 gallons of water.

Packaging, especially fast food containers, accounts for much of the paper and plastic-related products winding up in landfills.

We throw away enough iron and steel to continuously supply all the U.S. automakers yet we toss out 70 percent of the metal we use. With the shortage of steel in this country, that makes no sense (or cents).

So what can consumers do about all this?

Rethink your purchasing habits. We buy things in plastic containers but you have choices. Companies like Method and Seventh Generation are producing recyclable packaging. The more consumers demand that, manufacturers will respond.

Consider buying less and/or less often. And consider taking recyclable containers with you when you shop. It’s like taking a recyclable shopping bag with you.

Recycle more. Here are some suggestions:

  • You can recycle shoes. The Soles4Souls is a Nashville-based non-profit that collects, recycles and reuses shoes from warehouses of footwear companies and our closets, then distributes them to people in need
  • Take furniture to consignment. You’ll get some cash and someone else gets a nice addition to their home.
  • Take gently used clothes to a second-hand store or donate then to a charitable organization.
  • Recycle electronics (responsibly) as e-waste.
  • “Upcycle” through Terracycle“Brigades”. Sign up to collect any of the many things that were previously non-recyclable like juice containers, chip bags etc. Collect and send them in and gain points for charity. Everyone wins, including the environment!

Learn what can be recycled, where and how, and do your part. We’re the deciding factor in how fast our landfills fill. The more we recycle, the less our landfills will fill with unnecessary waste. It’s up to us.

Our recycling search is a great resource for minimizing your own waste footprint.  

Saving mannequins from landfills?  Read all about it here.

Feature image courtesy of Bill McChesney


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