Trash is something that all of us have in common regardless of our race, heritage, earned income, intelligence level or political leanings. It’s our common denominator, routinely dragged to the curb of our concerns each week for tidy disposal.
A week later, our trash bins are again loaded with unwanted remnants from our lives to be hauled away to a destination we rarely think about. It’s like pondering where all of our human waste goes after magically flushing down a toilet. Just as we habitually flush and forget, we prefer to haul our trash to the street and forget what happens to it.
I’ve been hauling metal garbage cans and plastic trash bins to my curb for more than 50 years. It was one of my first chores as a kid, to “take out the garbage” every Sunday night for Monday morning pickup. Each week, I viewed it as a colossal task, as if I was asked to transport it to a landfill on my own.
Some weeks, my family had just a few bags of trash. It would fit easily into a metal garbage can with a dented lid that I pretended was a Captain America shield as I dragged the oversized can to the curb. I viewed my weekly duty as the first Neighborhood Watch program in the Miller section of Gary.
Other weeks we had so much trash that I was convinced our neighbors were sneaking their waste into our garbage cans. I couldn’t figure out why it ebbed and flowed so much week after week, month after month.
In America the Disposable, the amount of municipal solid waste (as it’s called) that we generate typically mirrors trends in how much money households spend on goods and services. Simply put, if we buy more, we trash more.
The average American produces 4.5 pounds of waste every day, according to data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I’ve been studying this data over the past few days as I’ve been filling up our city-provided trash bin, complete with wheels and an attached lid because we’re now in the 21st century.
I rarely considered where all of our trash went, how long it would remain there, and what I could do to affect the nonstop trash stream coming from my home. As a longtime lover of purging things from my life — broken appliances, dusty knickknacks, outdated furniture, unused items with no current purpose — I truly enjoy getting rid of stuff.
I’m the anti-hoarder. I hate clutter. I’d rather trash something than see it week after week tormenting me from the corner of the basement, or from the corner of my mind. So off it goes into a landfill heap I’ve never cared about, located somewhere I’ve also never cared about.
I describe this self-centered attitude as truly American, complete with a Captain America trash-lid shield of apathy. We live in a disposable state of mind. Our deepest renewable, reusable resource is our indifference toward anything that takes too much effort.
Don’t get me wrong. Like tens of millions of Americans, I regularly recycle. Possibly not as thorough as I should, but I do. I worry that my efforts are going to waste with all the trash talk these days against recycling and where these items are ending up — in renewable products or in an alternate landfill? Either way, I keep recycling with the best of hopes and the least of assurances.
In 2017, the latest year for these statistics, roughly 268 million tons of municipal solid waste, or MSW, were generated by U.S. households, according to the EPA. Of all that tonnage, approximately 67 million tons were recycled, 27 million tons were composted, and the majority ended up in a landfill. Our trash will likely be in some landfill for decades to come, just like that bag of trash your great-grandmother dragged to her street during the Eisenhower administration.
According to EPA figures, the amount of trash going into landfills is at its lowest level since that distant presidential administration. Still, Indiana’s landfills are growing at the fastest rate in the nation, and our state is ranked second with the most buried trash per capita. (Illinois is ranked third; Michigan is ranked first.)
This eye-catching information is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and two EPA reports, the Sustainable Materials Management report data, and the Landfill Methane Outreach Program.
When I contacted the EPA about these figures, spokesman Enesta Jones shared with me this caveat from the LMOP database: “Data received for inclusion in the LMOP Database are reviewed for reasonableness and are corroborated via other data sources when possible. Not all data are updated each year. While the Program strives to keep the information as updated and accurate as possible, the database is not exhaustive.”
Also, this database does not include figures for every MSW landfill in the country, divided by roughly 52% public and 48% private.
“Over the last few decades, the generation, recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling of MSW has changed substantially,” one report states.
Solid waste generation peaked in 2000 at 4.74 pounds per person per day. The 2017 rate of 4.51 pounds per person per day is slightly lower than the 2016 rate, a good sign.
To put this in perspective, more than 94 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted in 2017, saving what would be comparable to the emissions reduced from taking 39 million cars off the road in a single year.
I hope all this piques your interest as it did mine.
If you take the time to sort through these figures, and sift through your trash, you may realize the role we play in a topic we’d prefer to haul to the street and forget about.
Jerry Davish is a columnist with the Merrillville Post-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.