Dig Deep Into How Landfills Work

Here in America, you can’t understand our waste structure without a fundamental understanding of our landfill system. According to the EPA, almost exactly half of all our waste ends up in a landfill, or 146 million tons of the 292 million tons of municipal solid waste produced annually. So clearly this is not something to be overlooked.

Graph Courtesy of the EPA

While landfills can often get a bad rap, it makes sense that they are as prevalent as they are today. For starters, with the amount of land the US has, burying it seems like the most obvious solution to our excessive amounts of garbage. It’s also relatively cheap. While I’m a firm believer in the potential of things like recycling and industrial composting facilities, those options can be more costly to maintain and require extensive machinery investments. Although landfills also require initial investments and aren’t just as simple as putting our trash in a big pit, they historically have been more profitable.

Despite the challenges we have with our waste, when you look at the history, it really is impressive how far we have come. Prior to the 20th century, most people were simply burning their trash or burying it on the outskirts of town to avoid the risk of disease. It wasn’t until 1937 that anything close to a modern landfill was created. The first one was in California, but due to a lack of forethought these initial landfills were environmental disasters. These ‘dumps’ were essentially giant pits in the ground that we filled with garbage and covered with dirt. They were consistently leaching chemicals through rainwater into our soil and waterways, and they were outputting extensive amounts of greenhouse gases. 

By 1976 things started to change with the launch of the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Among many other things, this act put in greater restrictions for how landfills had to be made. Some of the biggest changes included liners to stop wastewater from escaping and gas vents for gas collection.

Image Courtesy of OC Waste & Recycling

The above image shows an amazing breakdown of how our landfills are made today (click on the image for a closer look). Despite often being considered dirty, they are an engineering-feat. To start off these operations, wells and probes are dug in the surrounding area. These probes confirm that there is no ground water contamination or gas escaping through the sides or bottom of the landfill. To stop anything from escaping in the first place the landfills are lined with both plastic liners and often clay soil to add an extra layer of protection.

One of the biggest challenges that happened with old school dumps is whenever it would rain the water would seep through a landfill and collect toxins and chemicals. This liquid, referred to as leachate, is precisely what was contaminating water. Instead of just allowing this leachate to collect and pool at the bottom of landfills, they have piping systems running around the landfill to collect it. After being collected, this leachate can be sent to water treatment centers.

One of the most common misconceptions that I run into is how things breakdown in landfills. There is in fact very little decomposition going on inside a landfill. When our trash is deposited into the landfill, it is very densely packed together and the vast majority of space that would be remaining is filled in with soil. The result is that only a small portion of all the material placed in a landfill is able to degrade using an aerobic (with oxygen) process. Shortly after all the oxygen is consumed by bacteria doing the work of degradation, the landfill is only left with bacteria capable of anaerobic degradation (without oxygen). Not only is this process of degradation slower, but the main output is methane gas.

Methane gas is somewhere between 28-36X more harmful than CO2 to our greenhouse gas effect on our planet according to the EPA. The worst part is that our landfills account for approximately 15% of all our methane creation in the US. On the plus side many facilities now harness that methane out of the landfill and burn it for energy. Lucky for us, burning methane converts it into a less harmful greenhouse gas (CO2) and creates energy.

So since their beginnings, landfills have come a long way. They produce less destruction than in the past (short of the landmass disturbance) and even provide opportunities for energy collection. However, like I previously said, our trash isn’t degrading in our landfills. It doesn’t matter if you buy a plastic or bamboo toothbrush. If the final destination is a landfill, their fate is the same; one of stagnation for countless years. This is where “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” becomes so important. If we really want to reduce the environmental impact of our waste, it starts with reducing our trash production. Separating your trash into compostables and recyclables is the best way to send as little waste to the landfill as possible. Think twice next time you reach to toss something in the garbage can: Do you really want it to be sitting in the ground for an eternity?

WAIT, All Plastics Aren’t Recyclable???

Have you ever found yourself finishing something in your fridge and wondering if the package you are left with is recyclable? You’re not alone. You and countless others run into this issue constantly. Often people resort to wish-cycling, which refers to wishing or hoping the item you are placing in a recycling bin is recyclable. Unfortunately, this frequently ends up resulting in recyclables being contaminated with things that are in fact not recyclable. It might not seem like a big deal for a few things to slip through and contaminate a collection of recyclables, but it is. It often results in the entire lot being rejected and sent to a landfill or incineration. That’s a lot of valuable resources wasted in my opinion.

One interesting thing about this wish-cycling behavior is people that care about the environment the most also end up doing it the most. Think about it. Is your uncle Larry that doesn’t give a rats-a** about the environment going to put in the extra effort to put something in the recycling? No. He’s just going to throw it in the trash with everything else. You on the other hand will likely hope the item is recyclable. However, I don’t want you to just hope. I want to educate you so you are able to know the difference and dispose of these things correctly.

The first step to making sense of recyclables is starting with something that is often mis-recycled: Plastic. Plastic is one of those things that a lot of people just assume is recyclable, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of varieties that are in fact recyclable though. The best way to start to learn the difference is to start taking note of those recycle codes on the bottom of your packages. So here is a brief overview of the 7 categories and their codes.

A super common code you will see is the #1, which is often just called PET, polyester, or its full name polyethylene terephthalate. This is the most common material used for things like water and soda bottles. This is also one of the most recyclable items you will see. It can both be recycled (turned into another bottle) or up-cycled (used for components in jackets and carpeting). Whenever you see this logo on a package, it’s safe to say it can be recycled.

#2 is also a super common code you will see. This code represents High Density Polyethylene. It is used for rugged containers like laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, or even grocery store bags. Although those items are recyclable, they are not always recyclable in your curbside recycling bins. Things like the milk jugs and detergent bottles are both recyclable at home, but HDPE flexible packaging should be taken to a store drop off. Flexible packaging refers to anything that’s really thin and malleable such as grocery bags or pouches.

The #3 code is probably one you don’t see as often. PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. This is the same PVC that, you guessed it, PVC pipes are made out of. It is also used for things like garden hoses, blood bags, and those really annoying packages that scissors come in that require scissors to open (blister packs). While PVC can be very valuable to our day-to-day lives, its not so recyclable at the moment. In fact the vast majority of recycling facilities won’t accept PVC in their recycling. The chloride, or chlorine, component can be hazardous to work with once they break it down.

The #4 recycling code represents LDPE or Low Density Polyethylene. This a small variation in chemical structure that leads to some different properties. These changes lead to LDPE mostly being used for bags such as bread bags or even squeezable bottles. Just like with HDPE (#2), although LDPE is recyclable, only rigid containers are recyclable at your typical curbside. Well its unfortunate flexible packaging likes bags and pouches can’t be recycled on the curb, you can collect those items at home and drop them off at store-drop off locations.

The #4 recycling code is for PP, or Polypropylene. This plastic is often used for things like bottle caps, tubs (such as cool whip or sour cream containers), or straws. PP can often be recycled curbside, but this varies from area to area so its best to check with your local waste facility. The most recent information I have seen says to leave items like caps attached because when they are loose in recycling they can easily get mixed with other materials.

We’re almost there, only a couple more codes to go..

The last of the solid material types is #6 PS, or Polystyrene. This is what styrofoam is made out of. So it is used for the takeout containers, foam in shipping boxes, as well as things like plastic utensils. This is another plastic that is not recyclable and thus should always be tossed in the trash if you see it. One trick I use to remember this number is because the abbreviation is PS, I think of “P.S.” at the end of a letter to remember this is the last solid material code.

The last recycling code is #7 and really just refers to everything else. Often times manufactures will layer multiple plastic materials together to get the best properties from each of them and those will be listed under a #7 code. This code can also refer to other plastics not listed in the other 6 codes. Items with this code on them are never recyclable. There is simply no way for recycling facilities to separate the different materials out. Items such as baby bottles, fiberglass, or even small bags/pouches can be labeled #7.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what to do when you see these numbers on the bottom of your packages. Try to see if you can find these numbers on the packages you use in your day to day life. Remember to clean and empty anything you put in the recycling bin and that not all plastic is recyclable. These numbers are there to help you sort out what goes where. When the wrong thing ends up in the recycling bin it can lead to a lot of extra trash and waste being created. Feel free to reach out to your local trash/recycling provider to check their rules. If you don’t see a number, toss it in the trash. It’s safer that way. There’s an easy rule to follow here: When in doubt, throw it out!

Daily Dose of Waste. Part 1.

Quickly after thinking up this trash blog project, I got to wondering: How much trash do I really throw away? I mean, I like to keep the environment in mind. I have to be keeping my waste to a bare minimum, right? I figured, what better way to get to the bottom of this than to collect all the trash I created during 1 day.

1 day of trash accumulation


24 hours later, this is what I had to show for it. 8.2lbs. in all. I can’t say whether you think this looks like a lot of trash, but personally, I was somewhat appalled with what I had to lay out in front of me. When you multiply this by 365 days in a year and the nearly 330 million people that live in the united states, the amount of trash is staggering. According to the EPA the exact amount of waste is about 292 million tons annually. That means the average person produces almost 1,800lbs. of waste annually. Based on what I happened to produce today, I am far above that number at 2,900lbs.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) breakdown by materials

It’s easy to forget all the small things we get rid of on a daily basis from the cotton swabs and floss picks to start out the day to the countless wrappers and packages we receive our products in. Throughout this process I had to stop myself from instinctively just tossing these things into the garbage. This served to show me how second nature our trash is to us. We often don’t give it much thought at all. We simply toss it in the bin and other than maybe moving it out to the curb, it’s mostly forgotten. This is precisely why I think our environmental issues have grown to the state they have. Out of sight is out of mind.

I also had an unexpected lesson from this process: you can tell a lot about a person from their trash. Looking through it, the daily decisions I make become a lot more apparent. It was evident that many of the pieces of trash I had accumulated were a result of using a product/service that was a more convenient option. While I love the convenience of an at home meal delivery kit, there is a lot of individual materials that end up getting tossed because of this desire. Really the direct to consumer products (the things shipped directly to ourselves) are likely the largest contributors to the total trash creation in my case.

I would challenge you to do something similar for yourself. You don’t need to actually collect your trash like I did, but in order to think differently, you need to approach your day-to-day life differently. Spend at least a day or more taking a mental note of every little piece of trash you throw away. Think about was this piece of trash really necessary or was there another way you could have avoided it. Through small actions like this, we can collectively reduce our consumption and thus make a large impact on our total waste production.

Unpacking Our Environmental Dilemma

While I was in college I had a professor that told me I would make trash for the rest of my life. To most people that would be an insult. However, to me and the thousands of others that work in the packaging industry, it’s a reality (thanks for the insight Dr.Batt!). We make products that accomplish exactly what they are designed to do, but we often aren’t successful in the end of life for these packages.

Packaging is typically designed to accomplish a few things. Specifically, to contain, protect, promote, and transport a product. By this measurement we are effective, but I would argue there is a major over-site. We aren’t always designing with the packages end of life in mind. I want to change that.

Once our packaging is utilized, it’s tossed in the trash and that’s the end of it. My hope is to inspire both others in the industry and consumers using these products to think differently. But this isn’t just about packaging. This is about everything we use. Only through a holistic perspective can we improve the complex world we live in.

As environmental concern has grown over recent years, consumers have demanded more, and rightfully so. Like many others, the packaging industry has begun to answer that request in a variety of ways and is continuing to develop new materials and methods to do so. However, this request for brand owners and manufacturers to solve this dilemma alone is futile. It’s you and me. It’s the consumers of these products that also have a responsibility to use our products and dispose of them in an appropriate manor. We have the power to buy from brands that we believe in. Brands that keep the environment in mind when creating their products and packaging.

You see, this isn’t a blog just for my packaging industry colleagues. They likely already know much of this information. This is an opportunity for anyone to educate themselves in everything trash. Knowledge is power, even if it’s just on garbage. I will be exploring things ranging from some of the foundational information about what our products are made out of to some of the complex and creative ways different industries are solving this environmental dilemma we find ourselves in. So let’s unpack this box of environmentalism knowledge and see what we can learn together. Careful, this might get dirty.