I have a spare TV. None of my friends want it, what do I do with it? My recycling bin takes E-Waste, but I have heard that there was no longer any countries that processes plastic or E-Waste anymore! What do I do? How did we get to this place? i.
My elementary school teacher (Hello, Mrs. D!) emphasized topics that were educational, interesting, punchy, and drive forward learning. Often these topics were lacking in rigor, biased toward interesting topics to kids and what she learned herself in elementary schooling.
Somewhere, wrapped in the above topics, right between "quicksand" and "killer bees" is the big topic of today: "Our landfills will fill up and overflow!" followed by education on the consequences of consumerism and waste management, and why recycling will save the world.
The issue of waste and recycling is not a small issue in education. From fifth graders doing soda can drives or pop tab drives for charity, to high school freshmen adopting a highway, to high school student body presidents running campaigns on adding multi-sort recycling to their schools.
Throughout the whole process, there are a few constants that are taught until we completely internalize them. Trash is bad, and recycling is good.
Plastic is bad, paper is less bad. Glass is good! Landfills are bad, and leach toxic waste into our drinking water. Straws are bad - they choke turtles. We need to recycle, because otherwise, our waste will end up in the ocean and cause the giant garbage swirls and kill wildlife.
These issues don't end in school - we all take (some) of our schooling with us, and it ends up in public policy. In my city, Minneapolis, all residents pay through taxes for recycling bins, with high public support. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, residents pay per trash pickup, but recycling is every week for free, to encourage residents to recycle a larger proportion of their trash. Offices have recycling bins and rubbish bins side by side - one for the plastic wrapper and bowl of your salad, one for the cardboard label around the salad.
When we decide to recycle things - these ethos hold us to follow an easy guideline - put everything allowed into that recycling bin. Oh, it takes E-Waste? I'll dump in my old laptop and my old monitor. Easy! And this is life as we see it today. ii.
What happens between the bin and the landfill? While we often like to joke about Trash and Recycling being in the same bin
this is not terribly far from the truth. Either the garbage truck has two separate compartments for trash and recycling, or two trucks come by. Garbage trucks aren't very good at long-haul trucking, so they usually have a route that ends at the Waste Transfer Station. A Waste Transfer station looks like a giant swimming pool full of waste. Your garbageman backs up their truck to a special conveyor belt. That conveyor belt goes over some fancy magnets and fans to blow/suck away anything raw and valuable. No matter the station, usually at least one person vaguely scans the waste for valuables before it gets dumped into the giant swimming pool.
Often attached to these stations is a Materials Recovery Facility, called a MRF, pronounced "Murph". (I can't type MRF without thinking of the movie, so I'll be adding an explanation mark)
A MRF! is how your recycling bin gets processed. A set of conveyor belts with a series of well-tuned magnets, fans, and human components set to taking certain plastics one way, e-waste another way, and anything wet or non-recyclable dumping straight into the swimming pool with the other waste.
At one end of the giant swimming pool is a huge compressor. The trash that makes it to the compressor is compressed into a a bale the size of a big refrigerator, loaded onto special dump trucks, that take it to the landfill. At the landfill, there is a small crack that is open to the air, where they load in that bale in a neatly organized, structurally sound layer.
The landfill has a special liner underneath, that directs all liquids coming off of it into a barrel, which is brought to a treatment plant. It has a special liner overhead, which directs any gasses coming off of the trash to gas recovery valves. There is a "correct" depth to a landfill, and once that is met, it is often covered with top soil and grass, able to be used for other purposes.
Mrs. D, my Elementary teacher, was wrong about running out of space from landfills. I dislike showing how much space in Arizona we could fit 1,000 years of trash in. How would we get it there? But the fact remains - in the USA, concentrated around population centers, we have 2,000,000 acres of golf courses. The estimated size of all landfills over 100 years, for the USA population, is 80,000 acres. If we placed all of it under golf courses, only 4% or one-in-25 golf courses would have trash under them. Or, we can (like we currently do) just locate the landfills a bit further from population centers and then the 4% of golf courses are safe. iii.
When you need a tree "gone" from your property, (assuming your HOA allows it, thanks again Mrs. D.) you often don't need to pay. Depending on the type of tree, companies will offer to pay you, sometimes upwards of 3 figures, to remove a tree from your land, so that they can convert the wood into valuable furniture or materials.
That is not the case with recycling. Recycling is the opposite of a good that you pay for - along each step of the process, people pay to get rid of the recycling, with one exception. Aluminum
, which is stripped from both trash and recycling through specialized electro-magnets (even though aluminum isn't magnetic) at the MRF!, is immediately sold to a local refinery, where they sell it as raw recycling aluminum.
All other recycling costs money to dispose of: Paper
in the USA is about 50% of recycled materials. The MRF! pays to ship off paper to a paper recycling center, who shreds it and liquifies it into a slurry. The slurry is heated and cooled through several processes, and then made into new paper. Sources disagree on if this process is more resource intensive or less than making pulp from raw materials. Plastic
in the USA is about 20% of recycled materials. The MRF! pays to ship off plastic to an industrial shredder to be shredded, washed, and baled. The shredder pays a company to store and distribute that shredded plastic to whoever wants it. Sometimes, manufacturers will pay for some shredded plastic to be put into a bottle to make the bottle "Made from recycled material", but most of the recycled plastic sits in bales, in giant piles and warehouses. When the cost of warehousing the plastic becomes greater than the value, the warehouses can (and often do) pay waste management to put it into a landfill, which is totally legal. Often, the cheapest way to landfill a large amount of materials is to ship it on a barge overseas to other countries, where they can be burned or landfilled with less regulations. Glass
in the USA is about 5% of recycled materials. The MRF! pays to ship glass to a processing plant, that, through a many step process, turns the glass back into sand. They do sell the recycled sand, but for a lower price than raw sand, and often this is a small offset to the many step process that it took to create (vs just digging for some sand). E waste
in the USA is a small part of recycled materials, less than 5% and the most expensive for the MRF! to pay someone to take. The MRF! puts all electronics in a special bin. The employees there are used to seeing things that might actually be valuable - they are usually allowed to keep anything they see here. After all, less for the MRF to pay a company to take. So, most MRF employees have at home 10-15 old iphones, laptops, etc, unless an enterprising employee among them offers them a few bucks for all of the iphones to try to part out. E-Waste
is usually old TVs. The MRF! pays a E-Waste specialist company (E-Waste reclaimer) to take the bin full of TVs, where they do a quick double check for valuables. These companies are notoriously sketchy. Their key job is to take thousands of pounds of old TVs and desktop computers and cell phones on 1g and make them disappear. They charge a pretty penny. While they often have "free computer" programs and sometimes supply free monitors for libraries, most of the E-Waste ends up being shipped to Hong Kong, where the company pays a warehouse owner to store it. Then that warehouse owner runs out of space, and pays a small town in china to take 30,000 dump trucks full of old TVs. Those small towns burn the TVs, releasing old TV mercury and lead into the air. The water and air in these towns are terrible, and Asian governments are constantly trying to crack down on the movement of the e-waste into their countries. Each time, until a new loophole can be found or agreement made, warehouses pack full of e-waste waiting for a country that will allow burning it. iv.
. Whenever people talk about trash and recycling, litter often comes into the discussion. Litter is waste found on the ground in parks, on highways, and in nature. Litter has many sources, from a garbage truck without the top properly secured, to the 25% of the population that seemingly throws fast-food wrappers out their car window, to the time that I opened my car door and 400 receipts flew out and the wind caught them.
People dislike litter. I dislike litter. It takes away from beauty, and local wildlife eat litter and that's bad because you can find it in their stomach. Sometimes litter causes less plants to grow. If there was too much litter, well, it would just pile up! Instead of trees, it would be litter everywhere!
Litter can be from waste or recycled materials. Litter can come from the waste system, but it mostly happens before hitting a trash bin at all.
In the grand scheme of trash and recycling, litter, while highly visible, is not a widespread environmental issue.
The 0.01% of waste that becomes Litter does not meaningfully hurt the atmosphere, or pollute groundwater. Litter can make nature seem less natural when you look at it, but the plants and animals 100 yards away from the trail that you see the litter, don't mind it.
I myself have volunteered many times with adopt a highway, picking up litter. Until, one year, a worker told me, that when highways aren't adopted, they have a special vacuum machine that they drive down the side of the highway, scooping up 99% of litter with a tiny bit of effort. Here is a video of that machine. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNs4nK52Cw8
This machine makes me angry, that I spent so many hours of my life picking up trash, for the sole reason of making me feel good. Why don't they train highway adoptees to operate these machines?
I dislike litter. I also think it is a distraction from the discussion of the environmental impact of waste management and recycling. v.
I've discussed in i.
how we were taught to recycle as much as possible. In ii.
that trash and landfills is a modern and efficient system, with controls for most waste products. In iii.
that most plastic and e-waste ends up being burned or stored indefinitely in warehouses in 3rd world countries.
I'm going to throw my TV in the trash. It will go safely in a local landfill, rather than my tax dollars paying for it to be shipped to Hong Kong to be stored for 20 years, then burned in a village in India, poisoning the residents. Someday, if I'm lucky, I'll be able to golf on a course knowing my TV is 400 feet underfoot, safely stored in a way to protect the environment.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something. I would love feedback on my writing style in comparison to Scott's. I will retract / edit in any opinions that are disputed by comments with a source.