Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trash Talk: What Happens to Hampton Roads’ Trash?

Posted Thursday, September 3rd, 2009 at 6:39 pm on
by Amelia Baker

The adage “throw away” is rather misleading because when you throw something away, it doesn’t really go away. It actually heads to one of about 3,000 active landfills littering the country. As a Seven Cities local, rolling your 95-gallon cart to the curb every week you probably don’t give it a second thought, but let’s follow your garbage to the grave.

If you’re feeling up to it, you can absolutely take a field trip to follow your trash, however I’m sure not too many of you are up for visiting a sticky, smelly, seagull-swirling mound of refuse. And, if you took the trip to see the absurd amount of trash, you’d probably be appalled.

Just think; the average American generates more than 4 pounds of trash a day – Hampton Roads has about 1.6 million residents which suggests our local community generates 6.4 million pounds of trash a day and 2.3 billion pounds of waste a year. (Trash estimate based on average accumulation per day and local resident population.)

True to schedule, your friendly haulers from Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA) lift and dump every week. Trash heads over to the waste management plant before finding its final destination path. Some junk is bound for the waste to energy plant in Portsmouth. The remainder realizes its terminal resting place in the Suffolk landfill.

Landfills, by the way, with all of the layers upon layers of garbage, are separated from the earth beneath them with a thin (0.1 inches thick) plastic liner. Though much of our trash would probably decompose naturally and break down (plastics excluded), conditions in dumps don’t allow for much degradation.

During the slow landfill breakdown, a fairly significant amount of methane gas is released. You may be familiar with methane gas in the form of cow burps. Methane can be used as a fuel source and our local Newport News landfill captures methane and uses it to power the plant. Hey, at least the dump is a little green.

Rubbish that makes it to the energy plant is burned to produce power. This might sound environmentally sound, but trash burning has implications too in the form of chemicals released during burn, ash, and air pollution.

Knowing all of this weighs on the conscience of myself and my husband. That’s why we work our tails off to buy products with minimal packaging, to compost, to recycle, and to reuse as often as possible. All of these fantastic alternatives divert about 80% of our weekly accumulation, leaving us with less than five pounds of trash a week.

I’m pretty sure landfills will continue to be a prominent part of the waste process, but this is where every little bit will help. Challenge yourselves to reduce your trash pile every week. By using your local recycling program you can give cans, bottles, cardboard, and paper a new life.

Do something cool. Recycle.

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