From Guest Blogger and Office Intern: Margot Keene
Monday, morning: The first thing on your mind is caffeine but you’re running late so you swing by a Starbucks. “A venti please and a bagel with cream cheese.” You drink and eat your breakfast on the go and throw the cup, lid, plastic knife and cream cheese packet in the nearest trash bin. Siting in your office you have a cold soft drink and a bottled water. You toss the daily newspaper in the trash after you’ve read it.
Monday lunch time: You and a few office mates do lunch at a new Asian place, but you have to take yours to-go. At your desk you enjoy your spicy noodles and a health drink. When you’re done you look for the office trash bin in order to toss the Styrofoam packaging, plastic utensils, and plastic cup. After unpacking some boxes you have to throw out all the bubble wrap, cardboard and packaging peanuts.
Monday evening: You come home late, exhausted from the day’s heavy workload. You don’t feel like cooking so it’s a quick, microwavable dinner from the grocery. store. After you take it out of the plastic bag, unwrap the Mac & Cheese, take off the cellophane wrapper and toss the cardboard box, you heat it up in the microwave and enjoy it with some ice tea in a plastic cup and straw.
We may not realize it, but we leave piles of trash in our wake, literally, piles of trash. The average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash every day and that amount increases every year. In fact, the US produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste last year. The Office of Sustainability wanted to find out what all that trash looks like, so we decided to visit the Charleston County Landfill & Compost facility, a 312 acre facility located on Bees Ferry Road in West Ashley. It is open to the general public for disposal and tours.
There, we saw how all of our food waste, yard clippings and trash are handled. Food waste makes up approximately 15% of US municipal solid waste in our landfills. The College, with the help of Dinning Services and Food Waste Disposal, has been able to capture a large portion of our food waste. It’s delivered to the compost facility where it’s pulped and within 90 days becomes dark, nutrient rich soil. All yard waste and clippings must be composted in Charleston County as well. These are laid out in long rows that are turned periodically in order to increase the rate decomposition. This compost is used either as a daily cover over the landfill or is also available for purchase by the public (1 ton for $10!). The composting facility at the landfill is a great addition. It extends the life of the landfill, it keeps useful resources in the supply stream, it connects the community to easily accessible resources, and it saves the county and taxpayers money.
The landfill is the most disheartening aspect of the facility. It is literally a giant pile of trash that will continue to grow for the next 20 to 22 years. It’s not neat, it’s not clean, it’s not organized and it smells bad. All day for five days a week trash trucks from all over the county come and dump around 30 cubic yards of trash. Its then smoothed over with bulldozers and finally a thin layer of soil from the compost facility is spread over. The entire mountain is swarming with birds as they swoop in for a find. Beneath our feet we saw toothbrushes, shoes, food packaging, plastic bags everywhere, water bottles, paper waste, cardboard, and an unopened toy elephant. There, in this giant pile, lay the refuse of our society.
We were lucky to witness a trash audit that was being conducted while we were there. Every few years the county does an audit of a week sample in order to determine the content and percentages. Over 70%, we were told, was either compostable food waste or recyclable. All those man made hills around us could have been 70% shorter. It was a truly eye opening experience. To see the physical evidence of all our waste was nothing short of shocking. To see the unsustainable nature of our waste disposal system was shocking. To see the amount of useful and valuable resources being tossed away was shocking.
During our few hours there, there were certainly some depressing moments. There were also some positive signs. Thanks partly to the College’s food waste disposal efforts, Charleston County is expanding its food waste composting program. Thirteen of the 43 county elementary schools now compost their cafeteria food and another 19 schools will be added this fall. As those students get older they will bring with them the values and habits of composting. The County also seems committed to expanding and encouraging increase recycling participation. Not only does the county receive money for valuable resources such as aluminum, glass, plastic and cardboard, it also prolongs the life of the landfill.
Some food waste compost
So what can you do to address this mounting problem? The first step, as always, is to think about your daily habits and routines. Think about where that disposable item may end up. Think about where those trash bags go. The second step is to try to reduce the amount of waste you produce. Bring a thermos, pack a fork and knife with you, try not to use Styrofoam or plastic food containers, bring your own food in Tupperware, refill your reusable water bottle around campus. If you want to compost your food waste the Office has resources on how to do that. Finally, recycle appropriate plastics, paper, aluminum, glass and e- waste. After you’ve done all this, your landfill waste will look pretty small.
There really isn’t much sense in endlessly burying our trash for generations and generations to come. We don’t want to leave Wall-E to clean up our endless mess. We have many of the solutions today right at our finger tips, we just have to do it!
Summer interns, GAs at Bees Ferry Landfill & Compost facility