Landfilling is the most popular form of waste disposal in the United States. This popularity is largely because it is cheap. Especially before the 1980s (when the government began regulating landfills), landfilling was cheap and easy. The current technique of liners, compaction, daily covers, and leachate collection systems is increasing the cost, but it’s still one of the cheapest methods of waste disposal.
Recycling is probably the most tricky waste disposal method we have learned about. Here’s a good definition: “I will use the term recycling to refer specifically to cases in which human-made materials that would otherwise go to waste are collected and processed into new materials” (Jensen, What We Leave Behind). Some things like aluminum recycle very well and there is a market for them; other things like glass are not so easy: crushed glass is not terribly useful. Currently, most recycling is downcycling, which means that the shape of the cycle is not a circle. Recycled paper is pulped and turned into egg cartons and egg cartons don’t often get turned back into paper.
Composting, for us, is the most exciting method of waste disposal. As much as sixty percent of MSW in the US is organic waste. Not only are there tons of great nutrients in organic waste, nutrients that are still useful, but when organics decompose in the landfill they produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas.
Incinerators are not as popular, but have had their days in the sun. Incineration is a lot more expensive than landfilling, but it has the benefit of requiring less space. The garbage is burned and reduced to about thirty percent of its former volume. These ash left overs are still usually landfilled. Incinerators don’t get called incinerators any more, instead they came under the term Waste to Energy (WTE), which means someone stuck a power plant on top.
Reduction is about the simplest means of dealing with our waste; not producing it in the first place. Reduction is simple but it’s not popular. Telling people to live with less is about as exciting as telling them to turn the other cheek. But the people who are doing it seem to be happier than the people who aren’t.
Reuse is the oldest form of waste disposal: people have been figuring out new uses for things as long as they’ve been making things. Yes, that yellow toilet fits with the seashore decor in your remodeled bathroom!
Art is not really a method of waste disposal, but there’s a lot of people making art out of garbage and waste materials. The art people are making out of waste materials is often striking and unusual.