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Waste 101

What is the issue?

Today’s world runs on the production of goods. However, not everything created is desirable for use; many byproducts, or additional products, are created along with the principal products we want. For example, the combustion of oil to release fuel for machines and vehicles creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct (we don’t need the carbon dioxide to power whatever it is we’re using, so it is a byproduct). This is a sort of special case since the byproduct is not visible; it is released into the air and that’s it. The majority of the time, the byproducts created are “physical” - that is, we can pick them up, hold them, etc. We don’t need these byproducts, so what do we do with them? Unfortunately, the answer more often than not is to throw the waste away. Additionally, we commonly overproduce goods and / or buy more than we need, and as certain goods become useless with time, like food, we end up throwing them out too.

This sounds okay until you just look at the amount of waste in any landfill around you. The processes by which most of today’s products are made release staggering amounts of waste, so much so that landfills are overflowing, with no way to stop the production of waste or turn it into something else that can be used. Everything from rubber, to wood, to food and plastic especially is just left to rot. Even if the waste is discarded, it’s not done in an ultimately beneficial way. The issue is especially bad in the US, as the EPA says it is one of the largest generators of municipal waste, or the items that we ordinary citizens throw out on a daily basis, among the world’s industrialized nations. And when it comes to waste, there are so many types on top of the already-prevalent municipal one, including chemical, construction, agricultural, and more.

Why does this matter?

We’ve already established that there is an excessive amount of waste on our planet, but why is that important? Why should we care about waste? It is waste, after all.

It turns out that throwing stuff out isn’t that simple. A vast majority of the products that are thrown out do not decompose, or naturally break down, so they end up just staying on the planet. This is harmful for a variety of reasons:

  • Some materials of this nature are disposed of, but not in ways that are eco-friendly. For example, rubber is burned, which releases poisonous gases into the atmosphere that harm animals, plants, humans, and the environment. Timber is treated with pesticides to minimize how much it rots and decays (which can be a problem for waste facilities), but often these pesticides contain harmful chemicals.

  • Plastic products, including styrofoam, often flow through water and eventually make their way into oceans and other bodies of water. Prolonged exposure with water can cause the plastics to leach, or release harmful chemicals, into the water, which can be damaging to the fragile ecosystems that rely on said water. Marine animals often mistake floating plastic for food and then eat the plastic, which can get stuck inside of their body and be very injurious, even causing death. Other animals can get stuck inside the plastics, especially nets or the 6-pack soda rings, which can strangle them and be even more injurious.

  • Food waste can decompose, but as it does so, it releases large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas which is much more potent than carbon dioxide, and so does municipal solid waste. In fact, according to the EPA, these emissions are the 3rd largest source of human-related methane emissions!

The thing about food as well is that not only is it harmful from an environmental standpoint, but from a social, or humane standpoint as well. So much food is wasted each day while millions of people go hungry each day. It’s not fair to them that the people who don’t need surplus food (us) are wasting vast quantities of food without a care.

Other hazardous wastes, such as chemical and radioactive wastes, can be extremely dangerous to human and animal health if not treated and disposed of properly. I’m sure you all know of Chernobyl, so you’re probably aware of the impacts of radiation.

Waste also consumes a lot of space, which might not seem like a problem now, but definitely will be when we need to expand. Land isn’t a renewable resource, after all. (If you’re not sure what renewable resources are, check out my blog post about them!)

Last, but certainly most frightening, waste has been integrated into so many objects, including us! That’s right, there are plastics in us! Or more specifically, microplastics, which are very tiny, as the name suggests. While not much research has been done to fully cement their effects, scientists know for sure that these plastics do not belong in us at all. Additionally, “forever chemicals” - harmful chemicals that last for a while - from wasted pharmaceutical drugs have been found in Florida fish and oysters, and consuming them could potentially transfer them to our systems.

What can we do?

I hope you’ve understood how grave of an issue waste is, but more importantly, I hope you’ve started asking how you can implement simple practices into your daily routine to reduce your residential waste output. Not to fear, for I have compiled a list of several ways to do exactly that, conveniently grouped based on what type of waste they help reduce!

  • Clothing: Be mindful of what you buy to wear. Consider if you really need another pair of shoes, or another cute dress, or anything like that. But most importantly, please do not buy fast fashion. (If you don’t know what that is, fast fashion refers to any clothing that does not last for very many wears and thus is thrown out soon.) Sure, Shein sells cheap clothes, but what’s the point if you can’t wear those clothes for a good while? Those clothes are only going to rot in landfills while the cycle viciously continues. The trends don’t go out of fashion that soon. If you do ever need to dispose of clothing, consider donating it to a local homeless shelter or Goodwill. There are even some companies out there that repurpose used shoes! Another option is to repurpose your clothing; there are so many DIY ideas you can try.

  • Food: Again, one major thing you can do is be mindful of the food you buy. Try to plan out a defined list before you go to the supermarket, and try your hardest to stick to that list. Yes, snacks can be tempting, but make sure you don’t overbuy and then end up not eating the food and throwing it out. When eating out, try to order only as much food as you can eat, and if you do take home some food, make an effort to eat it. If you do have leftovers, you can either repurpose them (vegetable and meat scraps are great for stocks) or even better, compost them! (If you’d like to learn more about composting, check out my blog post about it.)

  • Plastic: Recycling plastic doesn’t really work (that’s a story for another day), so that leaves us with the other 2 Rs: Reduce and Reuse. Reduce is the most important one, since it’s the easiest to do, and there’s so many ways to do it. When throwing a party, use reusable dishes instead of plastic and styrofoam ones, if you can. If you’re ever getting takeout or taking leftovers home, request that they don’t give you disposable utensils (since you probably already have them at home), or take your own reusable containers when you go, respectively. There are also several plastic-free products you can purchase, like shampoo bars, soap in glass containers, and so many more (hint hint for my next post!). When you go out to shop, take reusable bags so you don’t get the plastic ones. If you ever go out, make sure to bring a reusable water bottle so you can refill it instead of purchasing bottled water. If you do acquire plastic utensils, treat them like regular ones! In our house, we save them, reuse them, eat with them, wash them, etc. Sure, you definitely don’t have to use them for guests, but it’s better than throwing them out! There are so many more ways to reduce plastic waste, but these are just a few of them!

Well that was certainly an extensive list! I hope that after reading this post, you have gotten a heightened sense of awareness regarding the waste issue, and I hope you’ll try some of these simple practices out! Whatever you do, the most important thing is to be mindful of the waste you put out, and how it affects you. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you all next time!

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