Talking Trash

Notes from Planet Earth

Trash, prominent in the aftermath of the holiday season, is not a pleasant topic, but neither is it a hopeless topic. First some data to help us get a sense of the big picture: The amount of waste generated in a country is positively correlated with the country’s national income level. About 5 pounds of waste are generated per capita per day in countries with a high income, while around 1.5 pounds of waste are generated per capita per day in the lowest income countries. However, it has been estimated that the highly visible municipal waste that we deal with in places like North Creek and Chestertown represents perhaps less than 5 percent of the total waste we humans produce with the bulk of it coming from agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing and other industrial activities.

There are also rather large differences between countries: Finland’s waste is composed of only a small proportion of municipal waste and a large proportion of construction and manufacturing waste, while Japan’s waste is made up largely from manufacturing, agricultural and forestry waste. The Netherlands’ waste is marked by a large proportion of municipal waste. Paper and organic material make up much of the municipal waste in the United States and Europe. We put over 50 percent of our municipal solid waste into landfills while the Netherlands treats only 1.7 percent of such waste in this way. Japan incinerates 74 percent but Poland only 0.5 percent of their respective municipal solid wastes. While the Czech Republic recycles 1.3 percent of its solid municipal waste, Switzerland recycles nearly 50 percent of this form of waste.

However, improvements in our ability to make constructive use of trash are taking place, albeit more slowly than we might like. The percent of paper consumed that’s recycled is gradually increasing, especially in northern Europe where they have achieved recycling rates of over 60 percent. While the United States recycles only about 20 percent of its glass, the Netherlands, Germany and Finland recycle between 80 percent and 90 percent of this material. And some municipalities are making use of burnable trash to make heat for local buildings.

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