Shel Silverstein wrote a book in 1974 titled Where the Sidewalk Ends. This book was given to me as a present in the third grade, and I loved it. My childhood friend that lived across the street would come over and we would read this book together on the living room floor and roll around laughing and laughing until it hurt. Our favorite poem for sure was titled, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out.” The poem never really says what happens to her after the garbage piles up to the sky and her neighbors and friends move away. The author leaves it up to our imagination: “…poor Sarah met an awful fate, that I cannot now relate…” All we could visualize at age eight was her swimming in a sea of “yellow lumps of cream of wheat.” It wasn’t pretty, but it was very funny.
Over the years taking out the trash has become as predictable as death and taxes. We may not take it out every day but it’s inevitable that we will. In the brief amount of time that the United States of America has existed, garbage collection and handling has grown alongside our country slowly but with purpose toward a healthier more environmentally beneficial and sustainable system; however, we still have a long way to go. In the early beginnings of our nation, no sewer system and no organized trash collection led to citizens throwing away trash where it was most convenient, but not necessarily the most sanitary, leading to pungent and putrid cities and towns and providing a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, insects and vermin. Groundwater contamination led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid fever.
In the 1800s, no one was immune from the effects of unregulated trash disposal. In fact, President Zachary Taylor died of cholera after 16 months in office. “Outbreaks of cholera, a deadly disease caused by bacteria, occurred frequently during the summer months in hot, humid Washington during the 1800s, when sewage systems were primitive at best. Taylor died on the evening of July 9, 1850, after four days of suffering from symptoms that included severe cramping, diarrhea, nausea and dehydration. His personal physicians concluded that he had succumbed to cholera morbus, a bacterial infection of the small intestine.” (history.com)
True to his philanthropic and inventive nature, Benjamin Franklin was ahead of the curve when he led a commission in Philadelphia almost a century earlier in 1760 to improve waste collection and reduce water pollution. Even more generously, he left a substantial amount in his will to build a pipeline to bring clean water into central Philadelphia. That project led to the creation of the Philadelphia Water Commission. (todayinconservation.com)
Fast forward to today where the majority of our trash collection and sewer systems are regulated by municipalities albeit in varying degrees. This transformation has been a quiet one lurking behind the shed, out back alongside our trash bins and recycling containers. Some towns offer curbside recycling, even composting ,and others do not, leaving recycling up to the citizens on their own merit. I don’t talk about trash with my friends and neighbors, and I don’t hear others discuss it either, but it is something we all create and have to cope with daily here on planet earth. Here are some facts from the EPA (2018) about trash or “Municipal Solid Waste,” (MSW) that may pique your interest.
- The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million U.S tons or 4.9 pounds per person per day. In 1960 it was 2.68 pounds per person per day.
- 33.7% of the waste generated was from food and yard trimmings.
- The total MWS recycled was more than 69 million tons. 67% of that was paper and cardboard. Metals -13%, glass, plastic and wood combined were less than 5%.
- Other methods of food waste management besides composting were estimated for the first time in 2018 including animal feed, co-digestion/anaerobic digestion, bio-based materials/biochemical processing, donation, land application and sewer/wastewater treatment. Food composting made up 6% of this.
- 34.6 million tons of MSW were combusted with energy recovery. Food made up the largest component of MSW combusted at approximately 22 percent.
- In 2018, the recycling, composting, combustion with energy recovery and landfilling of MSW saved over 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2E). This is comparable to the emissions that could be reduced from taking almost 42 million cars off the road in a year.
- Paper and paperboard recycling, at about 46 million tons, resulted in the largest portion of the total MSW reduction in 2018. This reduction is equivalent to removing over 33 million cars from the road for one year.
The United States generates massive tons of trash, so much that it exports some of it to other countries. Yes, we export trash (see below for statistics). Yet, I believe the most startling figure above is that 33.7% of the waste generated in 2018 was from food and yard trimmings. Household composting is an easy way for all of us to bring this staggering number down and at the same time reduce methane emissions and improve and enrich our garden soil, thus eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers.
Composting begins in the kitchen. I used to fill an old colander with my vegetative scraps until a few years ago when I got fancy and purchased a counter composting bin (the only difference really is that it has a vented lid and looks nicer). Either way, the scraps are going to be thrown on my compost pile several times a week. A couple of times a year, my husband will turn the pile and within a year I have great compost for my garden. This is called passive composting, but it keeps kitchen scraps out of the landfill and in return I benefit from compost that my tomatoes LOVE. I add grass clippings and leaves to reduce odor and facilitate decomposition.
Hot compost requires that you pay more attention, and to turn the pile regularly but yields rich compost much more quickly. Hot composting usually involves a bin, or perhaps a pile, which is filled all at one time with the necessary ingredients without the addition of more raw materials later. The University of Maryland Extension office provides detailed information on the many types of composting and what you can and cannot compost (see link below).
Another way to help keep items out of the landfill is to sort your trash. If you sort out your kitchen scraps for the compost pile, and have recycling bins for glass, aluminum, plastic and paper (including cardboard) you will find that your trash can isn’t so full. We can go even further and recycle other items:
You can take many metal items to your local scrap yard, including brass faucets, copper pipe or wiring, aluminum pots and pans, ceiling fan motors, surge protectors, and even aluminum lawn chairs. This might even turn into a little pocket money.
Staples is a great place to recycle electronic items such as adapters and cables, computers, monitors, phones and phone cases, printers, routers and modems, shredders, and tablets (see link below for complete list of items).
Lowe’s recycling accepts plastic bags, CFL bulbs, rechargeable batteries, and cellphones. Lowe’s also accepts plastic planter pots and cases in the garden center for recycling.
Both CVS and Walgreens accept expired or unused prescriptions for proper disposal. Walgreens accepts prescription medications, ointments, patches, OTC medications, pet medications, vitamins, aerosol cans and inhalers.
Books can be donated to your local library for their book sales throughout the year.
Old blankets and towels are always in demand at vet offices and animal shelters.
Usable clothing and household items can be donated at a variety of places:
- Salvation Army in Cambridge
- St. Vincent de Paul in Easton
- Goodwill – Easton, Cambridge, Denton
- St. Mark’s Thrift Shop in Easton
- Trappe United Methodist Church – Martha’s Closet
- Oxford Firehouse Rummage Sales in Oxford
- The Bazaar – To benefit the Memorial Hospital
Sweden is the world model in turning waste into energy. Only “1% of Sweden’s trash is sent to landfills. By burning trash, another 52% is converted into energy and the remaining 47% gets recycled. The amount of energy generated from waste alone provides heating to one million homes and electricity to 250,000.” (Blue Ocean Strategy) According to an article in the New York Times, “Sweden is on track to have 100% renewable energy by 2040 and to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. As lofty as these goals sound, Sweden is on track to meet them.”
I believe we need to engage in trash talk more with each other and discuss alternatives to the landfill and share ideas about how to waste less. What if we looked at garbage differently than just a bin we toss stuff into that we don’t want? Our consumption may consume us like Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout unless we view trash differently, in that trash is not always trash, in fact most items we put into the trash can be used, reused or disposed of in a better way. The more we think about our trash as having life and purpose, the less “garbage” we may actually have. Today I ate a sandwich with the two butt ends of the bread, even though they were fresh and fine to eat, the butt ends of bread are many times discarded. Each side of my sandwich had a different thickness, and they didn’t stack right, but if I closed my eyes while eating it, I didn’t notice the difference.
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch. She is also a University of Maryland Master Gardener with the Talbot County Extension Office.
Resources and Readings
US Plastic Export Data
Scrap Metal Information
In Sweden, trash heats homes, powers buses and fuels taxi fleets. By Amy Lee Sept 21, 2018