Tag Archives: waste

Waste What: My Own Personal Landfill

We all know what trash is like- ugly, smelly, and dirty. So why on earth would I chose to carry it around with me for a day?

The minute we dump garbage into a trashcan, we are helping to creating a physical landfill. Out of sight, out of mind, right? This doesn’t have to be the case.

By carrying around my garbage for a day, I hoped to become more conscious of my waste habits. Follow along with my journal entries to discover just what exactly we throw into the can and where that trash can go.


7:30am: First things first, I need to find my mobile trash can. Luckily I’m able to put this grocery bag into reuse.


8:30am: I just created my first waste for the day. The remnants of breakfast- a banana peel and yogurt container!

9:00am: So I realized the banana peel smells, and I get to carry around that with me too. Cool.

12:50pm: After eating a salad for lunch, I now have my second source of waste for the day. I wasn’t hungry enough to finish the whole thing, so I have now added a plastic take-out box and soggy lettuce leaves to the bin.

2:15pm: Someone just asked me why I’m carrying around an old banana, as they preceded to crinkle their nose in my general direction. Looks like I’ve become a trash can too.

My personal mobile trash can

4:10pm: Documenting my most recent trash update. I did a little bit of cleaning in my pantry, so an old cereal box and two granola bar boxes are now being carried with me.

4:45pm: Went to Sugarland and got gelato, so a small plastic bowl and spoon is added to my bag. I actually accidentally tossed this into the trash can, so fishing it back out got me a few weird looks. I never realized that throwing trash away is such compulsive behavior. We really don’t give our waste habits a second thought

6:30pm:  I was starving for dinner, so no food waste here. Luckily the restaurant will be washing their bowl, cup, and silverware for reuse. Unfortunately they did print a receipt, so that was added to the bag.


9:00pm: Status update- just finished off a gallon of lemonade!


11:15pm: Just did some homework, so I’ve added old scrap paper and a mechanical pencil. I’ve concluded that this should be all of the trash I will be generating for the day. At least I hope so, otherwise I might need another bag soon. Let’s see how this breaks down:


The best way to manage trash is as follows: reduce, reuse, recycle or compost, create energy, and finally, landfill.

When considering their own habits, consumers should recognize that reducing consumption is the best way to manage their waste. Landfilling should be the last possible option consumers should consider.

The first pile to the far left includes materials that should be sorted and composted- the banana peel, salad, and organic nut bar. The salad container should then be recycled, and the bar’s packaging sent to the second pile.

This second pile includes trash that can be used in a waste-to-energy facility- old paper, bags, etc. However, this trash would first be sorted by the facility. They would ensure no harmful plastics and other materials that would create unsafe air pollution are used in generation.

The final pile includes broken down cardboard boxes, a gallon jug, yogurt container, and magazine. These items should be recycled so their materials can be put into further use.



FAQ: Energizing Waste

How much do we really waste?

In 2013, Americans produced about 254 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka garbage), and recycled about 34.3% of that. That is about 4.4 pounds of garbage per person, per day.

Overall, municipal solid waste is over 60% organic. After recyclables are sorted out of the waste, what is left usually rots in landfills.


Photo: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Is this a new thing?

The US began burning waste in 1885 and by the mid-20th century, hundreds of incinerators were built to burn waste.

In 1970, the Clean Air Act put new regulations on incinerators, which had been polluting air and water sources.

Still, the practice of burning solid waste grew in the 1980s with more than 15% of waste being burnt in the early 1990s. In the late 1990s, more regulation was put on incinerators to control for mercury and dioxin emissions, causing the shutdown of many incinerators.

How widespread is incinerating waste for electricity?

 In 2013, 86 facilities in the US burned municipal solid waste for energy recovery. These facilities processed over 28 million tons of garbage to produce 2,720 megawatts of power per year. That is about 12% of the total municipal solid waste in the US.

“Burning waste to create energy should be more widespread,” said Nina Luker, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill. “Trash overflow can be controlled without to many harmful effects, and it seems to be the best option for what to do with our garbage.”

Is there a downside?

Burning waste creates ash, which will eventually go into landfills, and could potentially cause serious environmental problems. The ash is about 5-15% weight and volume of the original waste, so more could be stored. However, if the ash escapes, it would be very bad for air and water quality all around the landfill.


Photo: David Clow

Is incinerating solid waste the only way to get energy from trash?

No! Landfills are the third-larges source of human-created methane in the United States. This methane is a very harmful green house gas, but is now being collected and used for energy. It can be used in internal combustion engines, turbines, micro turbines and fuel cells to create both electricity and thermal energy.

Is electricity generation from waste used internationally?

Yes. In fact, Sweden is one of the world’s biggest success stories, heating 950,000 homes with trash. The Swedes recycle 47% of their waste, use 52% to generate heat, and less than 1% of their garbage ends up in landfills. They have begun to import trash to continue meeting the heating plants’ needs. The Swedish municipal association estimates that 1 ton of imported garbage saves about 1,100 pounds of methane from decomposing in landfills.

“I think the Swedes’ method of recycling and energy creation is a step in the right direction,” said Natalie Briggs, a first year at UNC-CH. “Other contries should soon follow to ensure better energy conservation.”


Photo: Elliott Brown