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The Story of Garbage

041612-2 When is the last time you thought about garbage? Probably not recently, after all, garbage is, by definition, discarded, unwanted. Most people toss their garbage into a can without much thought. And then what? Do you know what happens to your garbage after it leaves your curb? Probably not. Yet, what happens to all our garbage has long-lasting environmental impacts.

The average American throws away 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. If you put all the garbage collected in the United States each year in garbage trucks and line them up bumper to bumper, their traffic jam would extend from New York to Los Angeles, 100 times over. Most of what is in these garbage trucks does not have to be garbage; American recycle or compost merely 34 percent of their garbage.

Each April 22nd, we recognize Earth Day. We celebrate the unique planet that is our home. We sing praises to Mother Earth and remind ourselves to reduce, reuse, recycle, replenish, and restore. One of the best ways to protect our planet is by reducing the amount of garbage we create. This Earth Day, learn the story of garbage, as well as ways to reduce your garbage production. Your mother will thank you. (Mother Earth, that is.)

Where does it go?

041612-1 What happens to garbage after you take your cans to the curb? Take a peek at the secret life of garbage by studying this infographic. Once your garbage leaves the transfer station, where might it go? What happens to recyclables? Paper represents a large portion of what is thrown away. What options can you think of that would avoid throwing away paper? What dangers do you expect are associated with garbage patches? Based on the statistics shared, give Americans a grade for their recycling rate. Justify why this grade is appropriate. How do emerging world markets represent an environmental risk?

Now dig a little deeper into waste management: What is garbage? How can we get rid of it? How does nature help to recycle? What are some choices we can make to produce less garbage? These four questions frame the online exhibit, Rotten Truth About Garbage. Before you enter the exhibit, predict percentage of each of these makes up our garbage: paper and textiles; metal, plastic, and glass; yard waste; food. Other than in the garbage, how might you dispose of these things?

When you are ready to begin, click the “start” button. As you tour the exhibit, consider: how do we create more garbage than we see? What surprises you about garbage? Focus on one decade in the timeline. How did innovations or events in that decade change our relationship to garbage and recycling? What are the pros and cons of burning garbage? What recyclables do Americans recycle most and least? Consider the suggestions for ways to generate less trash. Which actions are you most willing to take to reduce your garbage production? Which would you find most challenging? Notice the blue “To Think About” banners on the bottom of some pages. Record your responses to these questions for further class discussion.


041612-3 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal agency charged with writing and enforcing laws that protect human health and the environment. One area of EPA concern is waste management. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act authorizes the EPA to manage hazardous and non-hazardous waste.  What is the difference between hazardous and non-hazardous waste? Examine the 2010 facts and figures for solid waste generation, recycling and disposal. Explain the change shown in figure 1 or figure 2. Which recyclable has a 35.5 recycling rate? What percentage of recyclables is recycled in the United States? What happens to the rest of recyclables?
Which two recyclable represent the largest share of collected solid waste? Which two recyclables have the highest recovery rates? What does this mean? Compare the rates of collected plastics to the rate of recycled plastics. Considering this data in these charts and figures, what one change do you consider most important for Americans to make to reduce their garbage production or to increase their recycling rate?

The EPA sponsors several games to teach students about waste management or recycling. In N. Trubble and the Environauts players try to prevent Earth from being taken over by garbage. To begin, click “begin mission.” Read Ergon’s Tale and complete your training before taking off.

Congratulations! You are Dump Town’s new City Manager. No one in your city is recycling. As City Manager, you start programs that allow residents to recycle and reduce waste. Read how to play then play the game. Check out the extra games you can play in Recycle City.

A Year of No Garbage

041612-4 “Is it possible to live for one year without producing trash that winds up in a landfill?” That is the question posed by bloggers Amy and Adam. To answer, they conducted the Green Garbage Project. For one year, from July 6, 2009 through July 6, 2010, they attempted to live without sending garbage to a landfill. They tracked their progress and shared it via their blog, Green Garbage Project. What do you think would be required for them to be successful? What questions do you have for them? If you dedicated yourself to reducing and recycling, what size box would you fill with garbage during a year?: An SUV sized box? A refrigerator sized box? A ream of paper box? A shoe box? A ring box? Predict how much garbage they create in a year.

Read how Amy and Adam prepared for their experiment. Follow the first three weeks of their project. (Scroll down to read week 1 first.) Discover how they were doing at the half way point, week 27. Finally, read the post for week 52 to see how they fared for the year.  It is safe to say that after a year of producing a small box worth of garbage, Adam and Amy are experts in reduce, recycle, reuse. Read their trash-free tips. Which will you try? Which are too extreme for you?