Thursday, December 20, 2012

When is a waste not a waste?

One of the key tenets of my ecofrugal lifestyle is to avoid throwing things in the trash whenever possible. It's always just seemed like a no-brainer to me: by following the four R's (reduce, reuse, recycle, repair), I could save money, save the natural resources and energy that go into manufacturing new goods, and of course, keep my old stuff out of the landfill. Which was, I always assumed, a good thing—not the main point of recycling, perhaps, but certainly a worthwhile goal in itself. After all, land is a limited resource too, right? Obviously we don't want to use any more of it than we have to for storing waste, right? And the less waste we produce, the less land we need for landfills, right? Right.

So you can well imagine that when, as I was out for my daily walk yesterday, I saw a garbage truck drive past bearing the legend, "Our landfills provide more than 17,000 acres of wildlife habitat," it pretty much stopped me right in my tracks.

I'd just always assumed that landfills were basically waste land. Sure, I knew that a modern sanitary landfill was more than just a pit full of garbage, but I always thought features like protective liners and methane capture were just there to protect the surrounding environment from pollution. The landfill area itself, I figured, was obviously unsuitable for anything.

Wrong, it turns out. In fact, Waste Management, the company that owns that truck I saw, has more than 100 landfills in 25 US states and 3 Canadian provinces certified as wildlife habitats. Altogether, their landfills provide 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat (it's obviously grown since that truck was painted). In fact, as development eats up more and more available green space, it almost seems like a landfill—which is unsuitable for building on—is one of the few spaces left that can effectively be set aside for wildlife. 

All of which has left me wondering: have I had it completely wrong all this time? Could it be that throwing more stuff away—thus increasing the amount of land required for landfill space—is actually a good thing for the environment?

Of course, I know that the land needed to dispose of waste isn't the only factor in the reuse-or-replace equation. As I said above, there are also energy and natural resources to consider. But knowing that landfills can be environmentally beneficial makes the equation a lot more complicated. Before, when weighing the pros and cons of throwing out the old and ringing in the new, all I really had to consider was cost. The environmental benefits, I figured, were all on the side of repairing rather than replacing (except in rare cases like ancient energy-guzzling appliances), so I merely had to stack those up against the benefits—financial and other—of buying something new. But now, I actually have to factor in environmental costs and benefits on both sides, which makes an already tough question even tougher. I was beginning to worry that every time I thought about throwing anything away—say, an old pair of boots—I'd have to go searching for statistics and estimating figures and crunching numbers to figure out whether the ecological gains from added the landfill space/wildlife habitat needed to house my old boots would outweigh the costs of a new pair in energy use and other resources, and eventually I'd just end up huddling on the couch refusing to move so that the old boots wouldn't wear out and I could avoid making a decision.

Fortunately, a little further searching on the Waste Management webpage was able to set my mind at rest. On further examination, I found that setting landfill space aside for wildlife isn't the only thing these folks do to help the environment. They also generate electricity from both solid waste and landfill gas, run their trucks on clean-burning methane (some of which actually comes from landfill gas, neatly closing the circle)...and bill themselves as "North America’s largest recycler." In other words, even though they're largely in the business of putting trash into landfills, they still consider keeping trash out of landfills through recycling to be economically and socially beneficial. And since they probably have a whole stable of guys and gals in pocket protectors crunching the numbers for them, I don't have to do it myself; I'm perfectly happy to take their word for it.

So basically, it sounds like I can stick to my previous practices. Keep recycling the things that it's reasonably easy to recycle; keep reusing and repairing old things as long as it's practical to do so. And when it's finally time for an item to go into the landfill, know that it's going to a better place—one with lots of birds and butterflies.
Post a Comment