Living for the Long Haul: How can we reduce the waste we produce? Part 1

Columnists share tips for cleaner living


PINE RIVER — For the most part, we don’t think about the amount or type of trash we produce, or about where it goes once it leaves our trash container.

However, we Americans produce hundreds of millions of tons of trash each year that accumulates in one of several thousand landfills. These landfills now cover about 1.8 million acres of land in the United States (.07%).

Before 1979 there were few to no standards regulating landfills. Since 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency has produced standards to regulate landfills in a variety of ways, such as requiring clay or plastic liners to reduce the chance of leakage into the environment.

Despite the development of regulations, landfills — old and new — are a major source of air, water and soil pollution. The anaerobic digestion of organic material in landfills results in the generation and release of large amounts of methane gas and carbon dioxide.

Both are greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Methane is 84 times more effective at trapping the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide.


Further, methane is volatile and can cause explosions and fires at landfill sites.

An even greater problem with landfills is the leaking of its contents into the surrounding soil and water — and, yes, even the newer “lined” landfills eventually leak.

This “leachate” has high concentrations of dissolved organic materials, heavy metals and toxic organic compounds.

When leachate enters bodies of water, dissolved organic matter is rapidly digested and the nitrates provide nutrients for rapid growth of algae and other aquatic plants.

Both of these activities rapidly deplete dissolved oxygen in the water, causing a die-off of fish and other aquatic organisms.

Nitrates can also enter subsurface groundwater and contaminate our drinking water. Potentially unsafe levels of nitrates in drinking water are a common problem in our area of Minnesota.

Leachate contains a variety of heavy metals, including mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper and zinc. As we might expect, these metals come from disposing of electronic equipment and batteries.

However, plastic packaging materials also frequently contain cadmium, chromium and lead, and, because they represent a large percentage of trash, they contribute significantly to heavy metal contamination of leachate.


These heavy metals are highly toxic to fish and wildlife and end up in the human food chain.

In addition to heavy metals, a variety of toxic organic compounds are found in leachate. These include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and halogenated hydrocarbons such as tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene.

All of these are troubling environmental contaminants because they remain in the environment for a long time, are concentrated in plant and animal tissues, and have been associated with causing cancer in humans.

How much these compounds contribute to the increasing incidence of cancer is unknown at this time.

Based on these concerns, we think it is important to see what we can do as individuals, businesses and communities to decrease the amount of trash we place in our landfills.

Let’s begin by lifting the lid on our trash cans and examining what’s inside. There have been many studies by the Environmental Protection Agency to give us a clear picture what we will find.

Here is what they found in 2018: food waste, 23%; paper, 22%; plastic, 12%; grass clippings, 12%; metal, 9%; clothing, 9%; wood, 6%; glass, 4%; miscellaneous, 3%.

Now that we know what is in our trash can, we can begin to determine ways to reduce the waste. Let's start with paper.


Paper, including tablet, printer paper and cardboard, can be reused and recycled. Paper, as you know, has two sides, both of which can be used.

Printer paper can be printed on the other side to double its usefulness. The backside of tablet paper and old envelopes can be used for scratch paper.

Cardboard has many uses as well. We use cardboard (plastic tape removed) to cover the ground in our no-till gardens and to make garden pathways. Cardboard retards grass and weed growth and eventually decays naturally.

Further, all “clean” paper (including newspaper, envelopes and junk mail) and cardboard products can and should be recycled. So let's take them out of our trash can.

How about dirty paper, like paper towels, tissues, paper plates, cups, cartons etc? These can’t be recycled but they can be burned. You can use these products (carefully in small amounts) to start fires in a wood stove, fireplace or backyard campfire.

We’ve touched the surface of trash reduction and we will continue our exciting look at our trash in the next column.

(References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged:

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are caretakers/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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