America: Absolutely Trashed
This page takes critical look at America's waste problem through the presentation of facts and visual art. In general, waste management in the United States relies on the principle of "out of sight, out of mind." As a result, most people do not care about the waste they produce nor see any issues with the current waste management system. The purpose of this archive is to educate, empower, and propose both personal and systemic solutions.
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Americans generated 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018. This number is only expected to rise (EPA).
Out of Sight, Out of Mind.
People tend not to think about their trash because it is siphoned out to landfills or other sites.
Why does it matter if we can't see our trash?
Well, when we tend to not see something, we don't think about it. Since our trash is taken away from us so efficiently, we quickly stop thinking about it. In fact, when MIT's SENSEable City Lab conducted an experiment called Trash Track, they found that people became invested and cared about where there trash was going.*
*Per Garbology (see sources).
What is a landfill?
Modern MSW landfills (also called sanitary landfills) are lined and sealed securely to protect the land and water below. Landfills must meet certain regulations per the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Trash in these landfills is compressed and covered with dirt.
Image: The Atlantic
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Landfills release what is known as “landfill gas” as trash breaks down. Landfill gas is made up of about 50% methane, 50% carbon dioxide, and a small portion of other gasses. Both methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that trap heat within the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Methane is one of the more powerful GHGs and landfills are the third largest (human-related) emitter of it in the U.S. (all information from the EPA).
In a study conducted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, out of the 270 landfills studied in CA, 30 of them were responsible for 40% of the total point-source (single, identifiable source) emissions. Results and studies like this can help operators find leaks or other short-comings in their systems.
Groundwater can become contaminated if sanitary landfills leak. This leakage is called "leachate." It is created through the interaction between rain water and trash. When the two come together, the water draws out the chemicals that are in those pieces of trash (EPA).
For illegal dumps, chemicals from the disposed items can leak DIRECTLY into the ground water. Some ways to reduce groundwater pollution on a personal level include ensuring that your waste is properly disposed, support governmental policies that aim to protect the groundwater, and educating others about groundwater pollution.
Improper disposal of waste contributes to habitat destruction. In the case of landfills, animals are completely displaced from their habitat and must move to another area. Animals can also be harmed by trash. When trash gets thrown on the ground, animals often mistake it for food. Trash can also disrupt animal migration patterns, mating habits, and can expose them to lethal diseases such as tuberculosis (read more here).
Due to the creation of landfills an estimated 1.8 million acres of wildlife habitat has been lost.
Trash often ends up polluting various water sources such as lakes, oceans, and streams. after being carried by the wind or rain Habitats and wildlife alike suffer due to excess waste. Animals can eat plastics and other small pieces of trash and this negatively affects their digestive tract.
Plastic is found in almost every item that we consume. Plastic does not break down in the environment and small bits of it are particularly bad for oceanic animals who consume these. Humans end up consuming tiny bits of plastic if we eat these animals (all information from the EPA)!
Per the EPA, environmental justice is defined as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental justice is intertwined with the concept of "environmental racism" which refers to the (unfortunately) widespread practice of placing polluting structures near communities of color without regard to the community's health.
In general, low-income and communities of color tend to be environmental justice communities. EJ communities are those that are disproportionally exposed to multiple pollution sources such as hazardous waste sites and refineries. The presence of these contaminating sites has economic implications for these communities as property values are kept low. For landfills, environmental justice (EJ) activists are concerned with the release of methane and other harmful odors that can cause health problems.
Hover over each photo to learn more.
1. Do what YOU can to reduce your waste. We understand that everyone is in different positions and has different priorities, therefore, focus on just doing what YOU can.
Replace single-use items with reusable ones if possible (ex: water bottles, utensils, plates, etc). Image and more tips here.
Why can't we just recycle?
Recycling is actually not as effective as you might think. People are a bit careless with their recycling practices. The EPA estimate that approximately 75% of waste produced could be recycled, but only about 34% of waste is.
Recycling plants may not be able to process every single type of plastic, and pieces often get sent to landfills. This means that even though we may believe that we’ve “recycled 100 percent of the recycled goods [we] buy when, in fact [we] haven’t.”
Images from Barry Rosenthal
You, and Businesses
A huge responsibility to change the way Americans consume and waste lies within large corporations. We encourage you to vote with your dollars. Before shopping with a certain company, consider doing some research about it, its values, and sustainability efforts..
Having a circular economy is a lofty goal, but the EPA is continually working towards it.
A circular economy is defined as an economy where products and resources are used and re-used for a long time. Ideally, waste would not be produced. This type of economy lessens waste, reuses products, and “recaptures “waste” as a resource.” This would shift our economy away from its current throwaway culture to one that is mindful, resourceful, and more sustainable.
Circular economies are based on 3 pillars - eliminating waste production and pollution, re-circulating materials, and regenerating the environment.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a leader in this field and provided the diagram on the left (also featured on the EPA website and World Economic Forum).
Sources + Additional Resources
1. Within each fact, sources are linked. To learn more, click on it!
2. Documerica is an archival photography project from the 1970s conducted by the United States Environmental Agency. The project sheds light on environmental issues such as air and water pollution, public health, and of course, waste. Browse the archive here.
3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a great resource. For waste-specific information, click here.
4. Olympic swimming pool calculation: 292,400,000 tons converted to 218,730,389,610 gallons. There are about 660,000 gallons in an Olympic swimming pool. Divide 218,730,389,610/660,000=331,409.68, rounding up to 331,410 pools.
5. The landfill creation map is based on EPA data. Learn more here.
6. For more landfill related data, check out this dataset by the EPA that examines specific landfill data in all 50 states.
7. Learn more about the aquatic ocean trash and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - an accumulation of garbage between California and Hawaii that is twice the size of Texas.
8. Environmental justice is a rich topic that spans across all types of environmental hazards apart from waste management. For California related organizations, check out the California Environmental Justice Alliance, Community Action Works, and Communities for a Better Environment.
9. For academic research conducted regarding real estate prices and landfills click here.
10. Garbology by Edward Humes is an informative and well-written book for those interested in waste production in America. The book was published in 2013 - so some facts and figures may be a little outdated.
12. Informative LA Times article about COVID-19 and the impact on the recycling industry.
13. More information on reducing waste from Cal Recycle.
14. Circular economy case studies and examples via the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
15. The Recology AIR Program is an arts-in-residency program calling attention to our consumption problem and promoting reuse. This program is offered in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Astoria.
16. Terracycle is another company at the forefront of imagining a waste-free future and a circular economy. The company has collaborated with other large entities such as Proctor & Gamble, Pepsico, and Saks 5th Avenue.