By Melody Tan  |  24 April 2018  |  

It was an informal poll with some people I knew: describe a quintessential photo involving animals that made people realize the trash we are producing is doing the world harm and therefore spurred them into action. I got a few suggestions: starving polar bear stranded on an ice floe, bird covered in oil, seals caught in plastic six pack rings, but generally, even as some came up with a ready answer, there was a certain sense of “Who really cares?”.

Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t find that quintessential photo*. If there were one, more people would be doing something about the trash our consumer culture is generating. If there were one, they would be concerned with how we humans are single-handedly responsible for the incredible amount of toxins we’re releasing into our own living environment. If there were one, I wouldn’t be The Odd One among my circle of friends because of my passion for reducing waste and recycling. If there were one, this article would not need to be written.

In reality, there probably isn’t a need to find that photo. After all, the photos we see of animals in the North Pole or the stories we hear of a great garbage patch in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean are so far away from where we actually are, it lulls us into a false sense of security. It doesn’t help that one of the benefits of living in a developed world with efficient waste disposal systems is we don’t need to see or even think about our trash the second we place it in the bin and leave it out on the curb on garbage collection day.

Except our trash is coming back to haunt us.

Dan Hoornweg, a former World Bank urban development specialist, says globally, we are on track to producing 6 million tons of trash per day by 2025 (it was 3.5 million tons per day in 2010).[1] Six million tons. That’s about 7.5 times as heavy as the Golden Gate Bridge. All that trash every single day has to “disappear” somewhere. And it does. Mostly to landfills and incinerators. We bury it, we burn it . . . out of sight, out of mind, right?

The problem lies in the “by-products” of the landfilling process. Many of us would be familiar with the detrimental effects of landfill gases, methane and carbon dioxide, thanks in part to An Inconvenient Truth. However, what we don’t often hear about is landfill leachate, essentially the liquid that results from all the trash’s breaking down. Calling it a liquid is a bit of a misnomer as it conjures up images of a clear, sparkling spring, when leachate is more like a soup of toxic murkiness.

In a study conducted by the US Geological Survey, it was concluded that leachate “contained a complex mixture of [contaminants of emerging concern] at concentrations that may be potential cause for concern if released to the environment”.[2] We’re talking contaminants such as nicotine, muscle relaxant, plastic, ammonia, and flotsam and jetsam of heavy metals and a whole host of inorganic matter—and it does get released to the environment, despite the presence of liners meant to stop it.

Once you pour liquid into soil, it makes it next to impossible to get it back. The soil absorbs, holds it and passes it on. So buried in earth, this delicious concoction of nasties is inevitably making its way eventually back into our ecosystem, into the water we drink, into the food we eat. And I haven’t even mentioned “landfills” such as open rubbish mounds in Lebanon that are right next to the Mediterranean Sea—leachate doesn’t even need to travel miles to get into the seafood (plant or animal) we consume.

Leachate management is a very real consideration for most governments but no foolproof system has yet been found. The 2012 environmental documentary film Trashed even discovered the clay used under the liners, designed to prevent contamination of ground water, actually enhances the leaching process.

By creating—and feeding—landfills, we’ve essentially created a problem that will never go away, even after we’ve stopped using it. Just last month, BBC News reported methane gas and leachate are leaking from old landfill sites in Sheffield, England, causing pollution to a nature reserve and stream.[3] The sites were closed some 10 years ago. Farmers with livestock on adjacent lands are now wondering what the pollution will do to the food chain.

Now, you may believe despite the leakage and how it eventually enters our bodies, landfills are still pretty effective when it comes to getting rid of our trash: bury them in a big hole and watch them eventually break down and replenish the earth. So what if a “little bit” of contaminant is the unfortunate by-product? It’s not as if your house is right next to a landfill.

Wasted! The Story of Food Waste is a 2017 documentary about, wait for it, food waste. The show claims a head of lettuce can take up to 25 years to decompose in a landfill. If it takes that long for biodegradable organic matter to break down, what more other materials? Plastic? Metals? Disposable diapers? (1000, 50–500 and 500 years respectively.)

Give it enough years (and I’m not talking centuries), that gorgeous family home you are passing down to your children and their children will be right next to a stinking, leaching landfill. After all, with the increasing amount of trash we are creating, thanks to how much we love to buy and throw away, and how incredibly slowly the things we bury break down, landfills will only continue to grow.

By the same measure, incinerators—burning our rubbish—can be just as disastrous for our environment and ourselves. One of the worst reasons is dioxin, which is released in the act of burning, and even if you don’t live near an uncontrolled waste incinerator, it will likely make its way into you through the food you consume.

Dioxin are highly toxic and can cause all sorts of reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.[4] They build up in the fat of the body and like fat, take an extremely long time to get out of our systems—if at all. Trashed revealed how women are heartbreakingly “better” at getting rid of dioxins than men: they get pregnant, pass the toxins on to their unborn child and eventually give birth to deformed babies.

Since I’m a mother to an almost two-year-old, you may think all the talk about babies in pain is the reason why I care. It isn’t only that. I care for the pure and simple reason I believe God gave me the planet as a home, and wants me to take care of it. That means being responsible for my actions, being aware they have consequences, and realizing the wonderful, beautiful Earth and its natural resources God created are finite, fragile and require just that little bit of care. And isn’t caring that quirky little trait that makes us human?

About now may be an appropriate time to throw in Bible verses about how we’re meant to be stewards of the earth, but as selfish human beings, perhaps I should put this from a “what’s in it for me?” point of view:

The idea that Jesus is returning soon so we don’t have to do anything for the environment is the same as saying I won’t do any housework because I’m planning to move houses next year, or in five, 15 or 50 years’ time. The reality is, until I actually move, I would still like to maintain a certain quality of life (that isn’t toxic or hazardous to live in) and ensure it’s a pleasant environment for everybody, especially for my family and yes, that includes my young son.

Besides, I live in a rental. My landlord will likely send me packing before I’m ready if I trash the apartment (pun intended). Luckily for us as tenants of Earth, God is far too longsuffering and less of a capitalist to do the same to us, but you get the idea. We still have a responsibility. To Him, to ourselves.

Micah 6:8, “. . . to act justly and to love mercy . . . , ” is often used in the context of social justice, but can just be as easily translated to environmental responsibility as well. We are called by God to care for the world because it is our moral right, and we are showing mercy to all those unable to defend themselves from the consequences of pollution.

* In case you’re wondering, here’s why the photo suggestions don’t really work:

  • Starving polar bear stranded on an ice floe: more related to global warming which while is caused by our rubbish, can be too much of an indirect link for some.
  • Bird covered in oil: result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which is more of an industrial disaster.
  • Seals caught in plastic six-pack rings: probably closest to the mark, but considering it’s not an image this author came across previously, doesn’t quite make it quintessential (Yes, I have been living under a rock—by which I mean I had a baby.)

Simple tips to reduce your waste

  • It all starts with one question: “Do I really need this?” Ask this before you purchase anything. If you don’t buy, you don’t need to throw away.
  • If you really need to buy, consider if you really need to buy new or if you can obtain it secondhand. Online communities such as Freecycle are great for rescuing items that would probably end up in landfill (added bonus: items are usually free).
  • Give items a second life. Find an alternate use for them. Used pasta sauce jars make great storage containers (a little dishwash liquid and eucalyptus oil will remove the sticky residue of labels).
  • Before you throw, consider if you can recycle instead (or put on Freecycle). Metal, glass, paper and even plastic bags can be recycled, so find a collection point near you and stop putting things into landfill/incinerators.
  • Compost food scraps. Even if you live in a small apartment, like I do, you can still do so with little indoor units such as the Bokashi. Or check out the likes of www.sharewaste.com where you can connect with others who already have compost bins.
  • Avoid single-use plastic bags. While we should avoid single-use anything, plastic bags are probably the worst of the lot since they are so ubiquitous and take so long to break down.
  • Cling wrap is probably an unnecessary luxury in life. A food container is likely to do just as good a job, and is reusable!

  1. http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/10/30/global-waste-on-pace-to-triple
  2. https://toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/2015-11-13-leachate_pathways.html
  3. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-43501404
  4. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/

Melody Tan is a magazine editor, features writer and television presenter. When she’s not at a computer typing her life away, she enjoys snowboarding, traveling, beach activities and the not-so-grandmotherly activity of knitting. She lives in Sydney with her husband and son.

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