Does Garbage Decompose? The Myth and What You Can Do About It

The following post is from Emily of Live Renewed:

Does Garbage Decompose? The Myth and What You Can Do About It at lifeyourway.net

source: Emily

Have you ever thought about what happens to your trash after the garbage truck hauls it off to the landfill? Not exactly a fun topic to dwell on right?!

I think we’re all pretty aware that our society produces A LOT of waste. We fill our garbage cans to the brim every week to be picked up and hauled off to the landfill. Out of sight out of mind, and most of it will decompose anyway, so it’s really not that big of deal, right?!

The answer is, unfortunately, no.

What really happens to garbage in the landfill?

A few years ago I attended a community event on getting started with composting. The speaker told us about a research project that excavated landfills, like one might excavate an archeological site, and the results were surprising.

Instead of disgusting, decomposing, rotting material, the team from the University of Arizona found trash that was 30-40 years old and still recognizable. In fact they used newspapers to date how long the trash had been in the landfill, because they were still legible!

The thing about our landfills these days is that they are built and designed not to leak toxins and chemicals into the surrounding ground and water. Of course, we wouldn’t want our garbage polluting our water supply!

Landfills are designed to isolate garbage from the environment. They are lined with a heavy duty plastic liner that keeps everything in and from leaking and covered with a daily layer of soil to keep out air and rain, as well as light from sun. But this design has the effect of keeping out the elements that are necessary for decomposition.

Because what does something need to biodegrade and break down into the environment? Light, air, and water. But none of those things are present inside a landfill. It is lined and covered and to keep all of those elements out.

So what does the garbage do? Hmmm, well, it just sits there of course.

In a landfill everything will look extremely similar to the way it looks when you throw it away. No rotting, no decomposing, no biodegrading, at least not at any noticeable rate. According to a New York Time article about the University of Arizona project, “There is biodegradation, but its pace is measured in centuries, not decades.”

So the argument of “Oh, I’ll just throw away this one paper towel, it’s no big deal, it will just biodegrade in the landfill,” is not really true.  No, it won’t biodegrade in the landfill, at least not for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years.

reducing our waste

source: Lenteui

Reducing Our Waste

The average American produces 4.3 pounds of waste per day. PER DAY! That number mind-blowing when you start to think about how many people are in your family, live on your street, in your neighborhood and city; not to mention the whole country!

In other words, we produce an enormous amount of trash! And almost 55% percent of it ends up in the landfills where it will remain unchanged for generations. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Over 50% of the waste we throw away is made up of food scraps, yard trimmings and waste, and paper products, much of which is compostable, meaning it will easily break down when exposed to the right environmental factors. Setting up a backyard compost pile and tossing this waste into the compost, instead of the landfills, can greatly reduce the amount of garbage our families produce!

The good news is that it is very easy to set up a simple compost pile in your backyard and begin throwing your food scraps and other compostable materials into it. In fact, did you know that there are at least 21 things that you can toss into your compost instead of your trash?

You can compost things like cardboard rolls, coffee grounds and filters, hair and pet fur, and dryer and vacuum lint! And find the full list here, along with things you should never put into your compost.

So with spring right around the corner (hopefully) begin thinking about how you can easily set up a compost pile in your yard to reduce the waste your family sends to the landfills. The bonus is, of course, that if you also have a garden, you will have rich, organic soil that will help your plants to thrive!

Did you believe the myth that garbage decomposes in the landfill? Have you considered composting? What’s holding you back?

Emily McClements is passionate about living with compassion and caring for creation in a way that will impact the world. She is a blessed wife and mama to three young children, and blogs about her family’s journey toward natural and simple living at Live Renewed.
  • Debbie

    We just started our compost pile a couple months ago with a converted rubbermaid box…can’t believe how much of our garbage is made up of food scraps/waste! Now our regular household garbage can takes twice as long to fill and I’m so happy!

  • GM

    It’s a great idea but as a basic starting point you’re assuming we all have backyards in which to set up a compost pile, and we don’t. Also my local council (UK) doesn’t collect food waste even though the neighbouring one does. They do collect recycling & landfill separately, but discussions in a local blog suggest they all go to the same place which is NOT a recycling plant, so not very confident about that either :-( Basically we’d like to be more sustainable but but about all we can do is keep working on ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’.

    Also we throw out a lot of cooked food (try to give my kids small portions but some days they barely eat anything, other days they’ll eat some items & not others, etc) and I’ve always been told that it can’t be put in compost? Any other suggestions for what to do with it?

    • Serena

      When my husband and I lived in a little apartment, we got a sturdy, lidded plastic bin with some holes drilled in it, and a moisture catcher and started a worm farm. It works quite well.

    • http://articles.earthlingshandbook.org/ ‘Becca

      Cooked food can be put in compost unless it contains meat or milk (which will decay, but smell terrible while doing so). Egg is okay in my experience.

      But the best thing to do with excess food is EAT IT. If you’re already full of your own dinner, save the kids’ leftovers for later.

  • james

    This is interesting, but I have to say though there was no visible sign of decay on the garbage there is decay. The law of entropy is one of the laws of thermodynamics and states that all matter moves towards a state of decay and disorder. So well there is no visible signs of decay, from the moment the material in garbage was created it started decaying.

  • liz

    Composting is quite easy once you make it a habit. My husband and I have a nice compost pile going, but it needs to be contained a little better. I discovered our 19 month old munching away on an apple core is found in it. Oops.

  • http://www.littlebusontheprairie.com/ Sarah @ Little Bus on the Prai

    My husband and I are moving onto our own acre and a half in a couple weeks (in a double decker school bus with three kids) and I am excited to finally be able to start composting!