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As society becomes increasingly aware of the impact of human activities on our environment, we must make conscious and informed decisions about our consumption patterns. With this in mind, examining what we already consume can help guide future behavior.
One way to do this is by looking at the items that remain the longest in our landfills. Today, we will analyze the top 10 longest-lasting objects taking up space in landfills across America today and explore ways we can reduce their presence and encourage responsible disposal practices going forward.
Let’s Talk About Landfills
Landfills are a vital part of modern waste management. While sorting, recycling, and reusing our trash is becoming increasingly important for protecting the environment, it isn’t always possible.
Because of this, landfills provide a safe way to contain potentially hazardous materials and isolate them from the surrounding environment.
There are approximately 2000 municipal solid waste landfills in the US; however, that number may not be precise as EPA estimates quote results from 2009.
Pros and Cons of Landfills
On the plus side, landfills are convenient; they contain non-recyclable waste in a specific area and help maintain sanitation in communities. Landfills release fewer emissions when compared to other disposal methods, like incineration.
On the downside, landfills are fertile ground for bacterial growth and, if not contained, can pollute surrounding water and soil and encourage certain species to flourish at the detriment of others. Air quality near landfills is also poor and can be hazardous to humans and wildlife. The eyesore and olfactory unpleasantness of landfills can also make living nearby unpleasant and will reduce the useful purpose of the land.
Landfills today are overfull and may require clearing arable land and forests to create more room for landfills. Hazardous items and products discarded in landfills may indefinitely contaminate the soil and surroundings, endangering human and animal life irreparably.
When landfills are full, they are reclaimed and capped to form a barrier between the trash and the land around them. Many are repurposed into parks, while some have become home to solar arrays or other energy-producing projects.
Top 10 Items in Landfills Today
1. Plastic bottles
Despite their convenience, the proliferation of plastic bottles presents some significant environmental challenges. It takes about 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose. Though many are recyclable, less than 9% are actually recycled.
2. Plastic bags
3. Glass bottles
There is no reason glass bottles should end up in a landfill. Glass is a substance that can be broken down and remanufactured infinitely into new products.
4. Disposable diapers
Disposable diapers are made of non-biodegradable materials and will take 450 years to break down in a landfill, during which time they leach various toxic chemicals into the soil.
5. Paper cups
Most disposable paper cups are lined with plastic to prevent leakage and may take up to 20 years to break down in a landfill. Recent years have seen a push towards more sustainable alternatives, such as reusable cups or compostable options made from materials like bamboo or corn starch.
6. Plastic Film
Plastic film takes 30 years or more to decompose and is not easily recyclable. It is on the onus of the consumer, manufacturers, and shippers to reduce plastic packaging or switch to more sustainable options.
Rubber-soled shoes take between 50-80 years to break down in a landfill, although new evidence suggests that some brands may take 1000 years to decompose.
Discarded clothing may remain in landfills for up to 40 years, depending on the material. To keep clothes out of landfills, consider donating, upcycling, or looking for stores in your area that accept used clothing for resale.
9. Tin Cans
Tin cans are recyclable, but when discarded in landfills will take approximately 50 years to decompose. As an alternative, choose fresh food products when possible.
10. Food Scraps
Food waste accounts for 22% of municipal waste in the US. We discard more food than any other country, even as the number of people experiencing food insecurity grows. Discarded food accounts for 11% of global greenhouse emissions. Reducing the amount of food thrown away is the first line of defense, but food waste can also be composted at home or through municipal curbside composting programs.
Items Not Allowed in Landfills
Each state has its own regulations about what is and is not allowed in landfills. Generally, disallowed items are those that are known to do significant environmental damage:
- Car batteries
- Batteries in general
- Motor oil
- Biohazardous medical waste
- Yard waste
- Computers and electronics
- Anything containing mercury or cadmium,
- TV screens and monitors
- Solar panels
Aluminum cans and many other recyclables are also banned in some states. The strategy behind the ban is that when these items are properly recycled, they can be remanufactured into new products rather than clogging up our landfills.
Some states ban #1 and #2 plastics, corrugated cardboard, newspaper, and other types of paper because they are recyclable and should not end up in landfills. Other items and products are banned because they are hazardous.
Check with your municipality to learn about landfill regulations in your area.
Be Part of the Solution
Even the smallest changes can make a huge difference if you’re trying to live more sustainably.
- Avoid purchasing items with excessive or unsustainable packaging
- Take reusable bags to the grocery store
- Bring reusable takeaway containers to use at restaurants
- Use reusable water bottles and drink cups
- Recycle when possible
- Reuse, donate, or upcycle clothing you no longer wear
- Look for items with less shelf life that are designed to degrade quickly in landfills
- Start a compost bin at home or compost what you can in your curbside program