In 2017, the United States generated 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste. This means 1,646 pounds of waste was generated per person, which is equivalent to the weight of a full grown rhinoceros. In a few words, we produce a lot of trash. Fortunately, with the success of environmental awareness campaigns, we recycled 67 million tons (25%) and composted 27 million tons (10%) of waste last year alone. Paper and cardboard accounted for 66% of recycled materials, and plant and yard trimmings accounted for 90% of composted materials.
Compost has become a very popular way for homeowners to make their own fertilizer. By using their own yard trimmings and food waste, they can supply nutrients to their gardens and landscaping. It is a relatively simple and cost effective process because the heavy lifting of breaking down organic waste into nutrient-dense compost is done by aerobic bacteria in the soil! Bacteria breaking down our waste into something usable and beneficial is a concept that needs to be expanded on. Many scientists are trying to use bacteria to break down plastic because it holds a a significant percentage of landfill waste, and takes 1000 years to degrade. However, bacteria generally don’t like plastic.
Researchers and scientists have been working to find ways to break down plastics in landfills using enzymes, bacteria, and worms. This mechanism is concerning because we do not know if the bacteria, enzymes, and worms are actually degrading the plastic or just breaking it into smaller pieces, called microplastics. These particles are concerning because they can block gastrointestinal tracts of organisms, absorb and give off toxic chemicals, and can accumulate in the environment. Research teams are continuing to look for innovative solutions to resolve the plastic crisis, but until a reliable one is found, the best way to reduce the amount of plastic waste is to reduce the amount of plastic we use.
If you take a moment to think about your own personal yearly trash-rhino, remember that the Three R’s – “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” are in that order for a reason.