It might seem like garbage is just a waste. But FERN and a multitude of other organizations and advocacy groups are working to change the common mentality that waste is a problem. Most of the materials we use on a daily basis are either organic and can used as fertilizer or energy, or can be recycled or reused in some way.

Especially in the developing world, the continuous increase in waste generation per capita comes partly from packaging, namely plastics and papers, that are used to transport products to us. The Zero Waste philosophy calls for an overall reduction in the sheer quantity of materials that are used in the first place, which in turn will have an effect on what must be discarded by the end of the product’s lifetime. In turn, some of the responsibility for waste reduction comes from the very top of the supply chain.

But what can we really do about the materials that producers use? What power do we have to affect the materials cycle?

It all boils down to keeping our garbage clean. Sounds crazy, right? When organic waste (like food scraps) is mixed with recyclable and other materials (like plastics, paper, glass, cardboard, and metals), the recyclable items lose value. The amount of energy required to clean off these recyclable items before processing them makes them unattractive to potential materials buyers.

Especially in circumstances where compactor trucks are used, (most industrialized nations depend on these machines to compress waste upon collection in order to increase efficiency), recyclable materials are mixed with organics and are often rendered useless. Glass is shattered, cardboard becomes soaked in rancid juices, and plastics are forcibly mashed with rotting food. One can imagine why these materials become unattractive.

The work for processing facilities is also extremely difficult: workers and machines are responsible for sorting out the remaining valuable materials from those that are beyond salvation.

But what if the organics never make it into the compactor truck? Or have a truck all to themselves? The mess is greatly reduced, for one. And then organic material is actually kept “clean” as well, and can go to farms, composting facilities, or anaerobic digestion facilities, where it can be turned into fertilizer, compost, or energy in the form of methane gas, respectively.

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Local infrastructure and the capacity that a municipality or region has to process waste that is collected will determine the opportunities that exist for recycling and composting. While many cities are not yet treating organic waste in order to recover value from it, there is a general recognition that plastics, glass, and metals can be collected and recycled instead of landfilled.

Space for landfills is rapidly disappearing. Neighborhoods and cities no longer wish to play host to incineration facilities that cough toxins and carcinogens into their atmospheres, and no one wants leaking, stinking landfills in their backyards. Not to say that landfills are not evolving – ‘sanitary landfills’ are constructed with complex liners to protect water tables and soils, have networks of pipes to aid in methane gas collection, and utilize consistent procedures to dump, spread, and cover waste to maximize efficiency.

If we improve collection procedures, however, and if the populace is asked to recognize that the things that they throw away are actually useful, and valuable in some capacity, we can begin to phase out our dependency on burying our waste. We can begin to connect materials cycles, using old materials to make new ones, instead of tearing nutrients and minerals from deep in the Earth only to use them once and then bury them again.


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