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Earth will take care of itself. The planet is a closed system – almost every atom in your next breath has been part of the planet since Earth formed over four billion years ago, and that atom will continue to work on Earth until the sun’s heat and expansion changes everything billions of years from now. Our Mother is very good at recycling and reusing her elements: in majestic cycles hundreds of millions of years long, mountain ranges rise and then are eroded away into the sea, where each bit may in time become part of a new mountain. In shorter time frames, nature breaks down dead trees into small building blocks that go into new life.

We humans have the same realities, because we aren’t making new atoms either. We need to recycle the components of goods that we use and discard, and perhaps America’s will get away from the kleenex culture of using something once and then sending it to an out of sight, out of mind, landfill burial ground. Modern landfills, with strong liners to contain liquids leaching out of the landfill and subject to multiple restrictions imposed by federal, state and local governments, are themselves an improvement over everybody’s dumping garbage wherever it was convenient. On my grandparents’ farm, we dropped whatever small amounts of trash and other waste we had over the bluff away from the house and let nature handle the rest.

Cities did basically the same thing until Fresno, California, created the first modern American landfill in 1937, which diminished but did not completely erase municipal garbage dumps’ health, groundwater, and other problems. There are now thousands of legal, regulated landfills for non-hazardous waste in the US, but we are running out of convenient space and maintenance is more and more expensive. According to the non-profit Environmental Literacy Council, total materials entering landfills in 2006 were 26% paper products, 18% food scraps and 14% yard waste-wood, all of which nature’s microorganisms are able to decompose into building blocks for new trees and new food. Another 16% was plastics, human-invented organic compounds that the bacteria and fungi haven’t yet figured out how to take apart.

Like some of our neighbors, we have a compost heap in our back yard which converts yard waste, food scraps and some paper into good soil for the garden. Our town has a weekly recycling pickup for newspapers, plastics and other non-hazardous materials, which helps diminish our landfill contributions.

The expanding frontier is landfill mining, going after materials and energy already in landfills. For instance, New York City’s massive landfill has produced marketable methane gas from the landfill’s organic materials. The Environmental Protection Administration’s website, particularly the “Wastes – Resource Conservation – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” section has  good information and advice  minimizing our trash.

Image by Ropable (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Nancy L. Ruder Monday - 16 / 07 / 2012
    For more ideas about the future of garbage and landfills, check out "Garbology" by Edward Humes.

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