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Guest Commentary

Scheck: The secret life of trash


Not so secret is that a minimum of 1,500 tons, 3 million pounds of trash enter the Salt River Landfill per day. The landfill will hit capacity by 2035 and it may be sooner depending on what we do next. So, let’s talk trash.

A landfill, by definition, is “a place to dispose of refuse and other waste material by burying it and covering it over with soil, especially as a method of filling in or extending usable land.” It has been said what you throw away never really goes away. Out of sight should not be out of mind when it comes to landfills and how we manage our trash.

The Salt River Landfill consists of 200 acres with 144 acres earmarked for landfill disposal. The rest is used to sort through what can be recycled and saved from landfill. Currently, the Material Recovery Facility, which is used for this purpose is on schedule reopen in May. It was closed after a lithium battery fire, which consumed the MRF — a not so subtle example of the effect of some of our trash.

No need to review all the items that are dumped in the landfill, just use your imagination. We all have seen enough garbage to know its contents. Once full, the landfill is covered with soil and is monitored for contamination.

Out of sight. Out of mind. What you don’t see is how long it takes for the garbage to decompose. Here are the decomposition times for common landfill items:

  •  Glass: at least a million years to decompose.
  •  Plastic bottles: up to 450 years to decompose.
  •  Styrofoam: never fully decomposes.
  •  Aluminum can: up to 200 years for an aluminum can decompose.
  •  Battery: up to 100 years to decompose.
  •  Single plastic shopping bag: up to 20 years in water or 1,000 years in landfill to decompose.

This is just a small sampling of the longevity of the materials and chemicals we send to our landfills. Additionally, methane is produced as a byproduct of decomposition in landfills. Methane is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a driver of global warming. Methane can be captured and used for renewable energy.

Development of systems to capture this byproduct of decomposition is progressing. However, decomposition of landfill materials can also cause contamination of the soil, ground water, animal and plant life surrounding the landfill. Ultimately, this will affect the health of people living within proximity of the landfill.

We have seen what happens when we ignore our responsibility to this planet.

We have waited too long for each and everyone of us to be stewards of the environment. We are in the middle of a water crisis caused by climate change for which we bare a great deal of the responsibility.

We have used this planet as our own personal trash can. We use landfills to hide what we contribute. We are running out of time to make the necessary changes to protect the precious resources we have been given. It is time to expose the secret life of trash and find solutions.