Trash, prominent in the aftermath of the holiday season, is not a pleasant topic, but neither is it a hopeless topic. First some data to help us get a sense of the big picture: The amount of waste generated in a country is positively correlated with the country’s national income level. About 5 pounds of waste are generated per capita per day in countries with a high income, while around 1.5 pounds of waste are generated per capita per day in the lowest income countries. However, it has been estimated that the highly visible municipal waste that we deal with in places like North Creek and Chestertown represents perhaps less than 5 percent of the total waste we humans produce with the bulk of it coming from agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing and other industrial activities.
There are also rather large differences between countries: Finland’s waste is composed of only a small proportion of municipal waste and a large proportion of construction and manufacturing waste, while Japan’s waste is made up largely from manufacturing, agricultural and forestry waste. The Netherlands’ waste is marked by a large proportion of municipal waste. Paper and organic material make up much of the municipal waste in the United States and Europe. We put over 50 percent of our municipal solid waste into landfills while the Netherlands treats only 1.7 percent of such waste in this way. Japan incinerates 74 percent but Poland only 0.5 percent of their respective municipal solid wastes. While the Czech Republic recycles 1.3 percent of its solid municipal waste, Switzerland recycles nearly 50 percent of this form of waste.
However, improvements in our ability to make constructive use of trash are taking place, albeit more slowly than we might like. The percent of paper consumed that’s recycled is gradually increasing, especially in northern Europe where they have achieved recycling rates of over 60 percent. While the United States recycles only about 20 percent of its glass, the Netherlands, Germany and Finland recycle between 80 percent and 90 percent of this material. And some municipalities are making use of burnable trash to make heat for local buildings.
But the primary goal of many is to arrive at a society with zero waste. They see waste as indicative of a design flaw. The idea is that everything manufactured, from a glass bottle to a complicated computer to a large industrial machine, should be designed to enable it to be easily de-constructed into its recyclable components. General Motors has embraced this goal and has embarked on efforts to reach this goal over the next few decades. In another arena there are those who are engaged in re-designing toilets so as to recover the significant amounts of energy and nutrients available in our human wastes. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded more than 50 grants aimed at encouraging engineers to come up with workable designs for more improved and efficient sanitation. They have also issued a challenge to re-invent the toilet. One promising design for a new toilet is one that separates urine from feces. Composting toilets are great for rural areas but have less attraction for urban areas.
Unfortunately, we humans seem to suffer from an intuitive sense of disgust regarding our excrement and this makes for considerable difficulty in our acceptance of alternative and more efficient means of disposing of our personal waste. Nevertheless, if we want to avoid smothering our Earth in trash, we do need to focus on improving our recycling technologies.
Questions and suggestions from readers are welcomed and will be responded to in future editions of this column. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.