Standing in line for water in preparation for Hurricane Irma, I wondered how many water bottles would end up in the landfill. After this manic push to collect the recommended three gallons per person per day of incalculable outages it will be the equivalent of a mountain. Having survived Hurricane Andrew, I know recycling is the last thing on victims’ minds. Twenty-five years ago, plastic water bottles were not as ubiquitous as they are today.
We pragmatically filled empty milk jugs and added a few drops of chlorine. The Good Year Blimp’s overhead message board warned us to boil water from the faucet before drinking. We now understand the risks of refilling water–or milk bottles. Bacterial growth is a real possibility. The bottles, intended for a one-time use, are flimsy and not intended for reuse. Washing them puts soap and detergent into municipal water supplies, a whole other issue.
Forty billion plastic bottles are produced every year in the U. S. Two thirds of them end up in landfills. Those which are recycled become some other sorts of plastic, mainly polyester. The majority of beverage bottles are exported to plastic manufacturers in emerging markets to make synthetic fabrics for clothing and carpets. According to Greenpeace, six of the largest soft drink companies used a combined average of just 6.6 percent recycled plastic. This excludes Coca-Cola, which declined to share a percentage.
Six billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown out every year and only about thirty percent are recycled.
The American Chemical Council estimates the average consumer uses 166 plastic water bottles for convenience, creating unnecessary waste in landfills. This space is limited and it is nearly impossible for bottles in a landfill to biodegrade. Earth911 reports 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space is saved by every ton of plastic that is recycled.
Here in Alachua County, any plastic container is recyclable. Remove caps and lids and step on plastic to save space. I understand that gutting the wallboard in your house and piling up carpets and furniture at the curb don’t inspire one to set aside ubiquitous water bottles for recycling. But as high as those piles get, mountains of trash looming over our cities are inexorably becoming the alternative.
Technosphere. Who knew there was a term for all the junk humans have made? Every week I dutifully haul the recycle bins to the curb and place them next to my trash can. I wonder how much is actually recycled and how much trash I contribute to the landfill. Do my castoffs and disposables add up to inches? Feet?
A paper published in The Anthropocene Review this week divides “contributions” to the technosphere into categories: urban, rural, subterranean, marine and aerial. Although I am contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, my weekly trek to the street probably contributes more depth to the urban sphere than any of the others: cords from out of date technology, jeans with holes in the knees, the Styrofoam box with restaurant leftovers I never ate, empty Bic pens, irreparable household items…
I decided to figure out how much of the sphere I’m responsible for. According to the Review, humans have accumulated an estimated 30 trillion tons of “stuff” – enough to fit over 100 pounds worth over every square meter of the planet’s surface. I went to Worldometers to learn what the world population is currently (7,475,632,700 when I clicked on), thinking I would divide the 30 trillion tons by that figure. Trouble is, the meter is racing. I thought about all those babies being born, requiring how many disposable diapers, all growing up to fill their own recycle bins and trash cans.
It’s scary thinking about how humans of the Recent Epoch (Holocene, 11,700 YA to present) are impacting the planet with our innovative creations. The technosphere, a relatively new phenomenon in geological time is changing the planet. I fear the consequences, yet I continue to assist its evolution. “The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly.” -Professor Mark Williams, University of Leicester.
While I’m on the subject, kudos to the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky. While waiting for my Toyota to be serviced, I picked up Toyota Today, a magazine distributed solely in Toyota dealerships. The article I read was surely biased, but deserves praise nonetheless.
Have you ever driven past a mountainous landfill peppered with myriad pipes and thought, “What a waste!” (no pun intended) Toyota reports their partnership with Waste Services of the Bluegrass, generating power from landfill gas. The processed methane will provide enough annual power to produce 10,000 vehicles. Wells collect the gas, which is used to fuel generators and carry the electricity to Toyota’s manufacturing plant, a few miles from the landfill. The Toyota plant, which produces Camry Hybrid and Avalon Hybrid, has upped the ante for other green manufacturers.
Upon further research, I learned that virtually all landfill owners contract out gas extraction. This was encouraging, since venting and burning were the only methods of dealing with landfill methane this novice was aware of. Of the three typical ways of removing methane from landfills—venting, burning, and extraction—only later properly disposes of the potentially hazardous gas and offers the option of selling it as fuel. According to Jerry Soto, project manager for Houston-based Griffin Dewatering Corporation, over the last two decades, 594 U. S gas-to-energy sites have taken advantage of this benefit, generating 1,813 megawatts of electricity and lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.
Methane extraction wells require expertise, as the process is dangerous. The gas is a naturally occurring byproduct of decomposing organic waste, posing two hazards. Although it’s in the air we breathe, high concentrations displace oxygen and pose a health hazard. It is highly flammable and potentially explosive.
Read how this precarious process takes place in Soto’s article for Public Works Magazine. The article is well written in terms easily understood by the layperson. It includes an optional slide show.
Photo credit: zero waste america.org