Now that the holiday gift-giving season is behind us, we’ve got a lot of waste to dispose of. Plastic wrappers and containers, wrapping paper and cardboard boxes, and now-obsolete electronic gadgets (e-waste) are likely sitting in piles in your home or garbage bin awaiting garbage trucks to haul them away. (If you’re in New York City, like I am, the blizzard might keep those trucks out-of-service for a few more days…)
Here’s a short guide to why we should care about these three kinds of waste, and the most environmentally-friendly ways to recycle or dispose of them.
1. Plastics and the Pacific Trash Vortex
In the oceans are powerful currents of warm and cool water that keep the seas constantly churning. These currents are constrained by landmasses – by the continents – to create huge circular currents referred to as gyres.
In the Pacific Ocean, one gyre is called the North Pacific Gyre. Scientists are now learning that this loop has been trapping plastics, chemical sludge, and other debris for decades, forming what some call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The garbage patch extends over an area that might be as large as the continental United States, or as small as the state of Texas; either way, it’s an enormous pile of garbage floating in our ocean.
Nearly 30 million tons of plastic are thrown away each year, and it is predicted that 80% of the plastics in the gyre come from land sources and 20% from sea sources (although it is difficult to scientifically substantiate the sources of these plastics, and the land-to-sea ratio is contested). Regardless, some of the plastics we dispose of do inadvertently find their way into the watershed, to head out to sea. On the east coast, our trash has found its way into the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, although the Pacific patch is more notorious.
The accumulation of plastic garbage in the vortex – and in our landfills, as well – is a huge cause for concern. For that reason, it’s extraordinarily important to recycle diligently and reduce plastic consumption. Many plastics, like wrappers, are unfortunately non-recyclable. But many more are – so make sure to check local recycling regulations, and sort garbage accordingly. Click here to learn more about the Pacific Garbage Patch.
2. E-Waste and Our Air and Waterways
When we receive new gadgets at Christmas, it’s often the older, obsolete gifts we wind up submitting to the landfill. In recent years, the amount of electronic waste – or E-waste – has been growing substantially due to falling costs of technology, and planned obsolescence.
In the United States, it is estimated that nearly 50 million tons of E-waste are produced each year – around 30 million computers. The EPA estimates that only 15 to 20 percent of this waste is recycled annually, and that 70% of heavy metals in landfills come from discarded electronics. This is a huge amount of waste, and runoff from electronic waste can contribute toxins like mercury, cadmium, beryllium, and lead into human and natural waterways.
There are E-waste recycling options available, but one has to be careful not to choose an E-waste recycling program that damages the environment. Some E-waste recycling programs in developing nations, especially, pump non-recyclable E-waste directly into streams and landfills. In New York City, one of the most reliable and popular E-waste recycling programs is run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center. These events occur several times throughout the year (there’s one this weekend!) and more information on them can be found by clicking here.
3. Paper, Expanding Landfills, and Climate Change
The amount of paper that Americans throw away during the holiday season is massive. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans throw away 25% more trash than any other time of the year, according to Stanford University. This accounts for an extra 25 million tons of garbage, or one million tons per week. Even the number of Christmas cards Americans send is huge – 2.65 billion cards adds up to enough paper to fill a football field 10 stories high.
If the extra trash going to the landfill isn’t enough to indicate the importance of recycling and using recycled products, also consider that when paper goes into landfills it often decays in a low-oxygen environment. Instead of simply biodegrading into the soil (or the landfill), this degrading paper can release significant amounts of methane, which is a potential greenhouse gas. Indeed, as the EPA notes, methane is roughly 20-times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
So this year, consider doing something with leftover wrapping paper besides throwing in the landfill. Reuse it for other gifts or craft projects; shred it and add it to a compost bin or mulch pile to feed your garden; use it to pad packages for mailing.
GREEN DEPOT SOLUTIONS
Keeping trash sorted for recycling and composting isn’t especially difficult when there’s a convenient system in place. Green Depot offers a few green products to help accomplish the task.
The Umbra Grand Can is a basic garbage can made from virgin polypropylene plastic with a brushed metal finish. It has a capacity of 9 ¾ gallons.
Indoor composting need not be the smelly nightmare many apartment owners fear it will be. The NatureMill Home Composter fits under a kitchen counter, and using gentle electric warmth to speed up the decomposition process, ensures a steady supply of compost all winter long for the spring garden. Additionally – it’s odor-free.