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Knowing Where Your Garbage Ends Up

If you don’t reduce your consumption, reuse an item you already have, or find a way to recycle it, it joins the majority of domestic waste in landfill sites or incinerators. Although both disposal methods have vastly reduced their impact on the environment in recent decades, neither one is ideal.

  • Landfills: The Unites States is home to approximately 1,650 landfills. These massive holes in the earth are often located on the outskirts of cities and towns, where their contents slowly decompose over the course of several centuries. In the past, sites were simply covered with earth and the trash left to its own devices. Modern landfill sites, however, are better managed; they’re lined and capped to stop toxic chemicals from the trash leaking into the surrounding earth and polluting nearby water sources. Built-in systems capture escaping gases and liquids, with some experiments now taking place to recapture energy released by the decomposition process. Suitable sites for landfills are becoming scarce, though, and concern still exists about the potential for leakage, especially groundwater contamination.

    Landfills can be environmental hazards themselves, in spite of precautions. [Credit: PhotoDisc/Gett
    Credit: PhotoDisc/Getty Images
    Landfills can be environmental hazards themselves, in spite of precautions.
  • Incinerators: A much smaller proportion of your trash is burned in big incinerators, which reduce the trash by both volume and weight. Older incinerators were major sources of air pollution, pumping environmentally damaging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Newer plants use up-to-date technology that makes them much cleaner and less damaging to the environment; in fact, the energy released by burning the trash can be used to generate heat and electricity. However, the burning process creates ash and gases, which remain cause for concern. The process of incinerating is even more environmentally harmful when it’s done in people’s back yards because there are absolutely no controls or processes to limit the amount of gases or particles being sent into the atmosphere.

    Incinerators can generate energy, but add pollutants as well. [Credit: Digital Vision]
    Credit: Digital Vision
    Incinerators can generate energy, but add pollutants as well.

Because neither landfills nor incinerators are facilities that most people want in their backyards, and because both methods of trash disposal have some negative impact on the environment, it’s far better to focus on diverting waste away from them in the first place.

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