Brooklyn Boro

It’s all a bunch of garbage

July 9, 2021 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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Unlike today’s kids who only have to tote plastic bags and containers to the curb, we, when we were their age, had to work out, lift weights or do something to make us stronger. The garbage we schlepped was in steel cans. I don’t know why, but unlike today when there are plastic rolling racks for the plastic bins, we dragged the cans to the curb, often scaring the driveway and cement along the way. Watching the garbage men was awe inspiring. They’d hoist that can, carry it to the back of the garbage eating truck, then dump and bounce. The bounce was the smacking of the can against the lip of the crater into which the garbage went so they weren’t giving you back the same garbage you gave them.

Not surprisingly there were garbage strikes. Cans lined the streets in all the boroughs. The strikes were usually in hot weather, so it wasn’t long before the stench pervaded every nook and cranny of life. This was what usually brought a solution to the strike. And that was the sum total of it. Like robots on a certain day, we did our garbage routine and were met by robots who took it away. Yes there were incinerators, and the citizens were becoming aware of the thick, billowing smoke that came from them, and the oily black exhaust from trucks, and what became known as smog. We got to thinking about solutions to that, but the garbage not so much.

It seems suddenly, but obviously not, we had a garbage problem. As part of the on-going diplomatic hissing match between China and the US, China stopped taking our garbage. Just how much could the Jersey landfills hold? In fact, how much could the 300 plus landfills in the nation hold? And while they were holding it, what were the contents doing to the air we breathe and the water we drink. Now we have a real mess on our hands.

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It is very difficult to get people excited about solving the garbage problem. What was that wonderful Jonathan Winters movie about the funeral business? Wealthy families found out that Forest Lawn Cemetery was out of burial space, so Winters started a burial in space business. Yes there are those looking for a nearby black hole in space into which we can dump the world’s garbage or dump onto the sun and so on. 

I recently found a creative way to raise conscientiousness about this issue. Keep reading.

First, an overview. According to the Duke University Sustainability project Americans toss four pounds of trash a day per person. The math for you then is simple.  Then multiply that number by 350,000,000. Then remind yourself that this is only your family, and this is only America. There are 120 nations represented at the United Nations. 

Where does all that stuff go? The answer for the vast majority of it is one word: Landfills. tells us that landfills are the second largest source of human produced methane release into the air, methane being a gas that traps heat twenty-five times more than does carbon dioxide. There are 3,500 landfills in America, a few are not too far from where you are reading this. Remember as trash increases so does the need for more landfills therefore more methane.

Let’s look at some specifics. Those paper towels we rip off so routinely from their holders instead of using sponges or rags that are washable and reusable, they take upwards of a month to decompose. Have a yen for fruit? That orange peel or banana peel will be with us for about five weeks. FYI it would take less time to binge watch every episode of Law and Order or renew your passport than decomposition of the towels or fruit waste.

Are you a cigarette smoker? Upwards of five years for each filter you toss away. Here’s a good one. It takes 10-20 years for plastic bags to decompose. That’s about the same time as it took the Egyptians to build the Great Pyramid. When you come back from Publix having shopped for the week, how many plastic bags do you have to toss out? Multiply that number of bags by let’s say the average, 15 years. If you want to really go for it, how many houses are in your neighborhood or in your town? Now we’re into some advanced math.

Nylon is used for more than stockings. It is in all kinds of things, like fishing lines. Thirty to forty years is the answer for that one. Your work boots are too worn to give away so you toss em? The soles take 65 years to decompose, lasting as long as the lifespan of an African elephant. Here’s one that is hard to get one’s mind around. Leather and Styrofoam cups—50 years each. I remember you. That’s 50 years for each one.

We’ll close with some goodies. Soda cans: 140 years. A glass bottle? One MILLION years. And the grand slam? Baby diapers of which it is estimated that more than 27 billion are discarded every year in the good ole USA. And the answer is? 450 years per diaper. 

These numbers will only grow and eventually we’ll run out of landfill space. Other than filling up things like the Grand Canyon we must be determined and creative. Don’t use plastic bags, use reusable one. Use cloth diapers. Break the paper towel habit. Get involved socially and politically. Don’t be just another citizen contributing to the suicide of the us and the planet that hosts us.

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