How important is waste separation?

Trash separation  

Waste is something that we’re all used to dealing with in our daily lives (even if you decide to live more minimalist), but it isn’t something we enjoy dealing with. Any steps we need to take to dispose of our unused products or packaging is simply put: inconvenient. With more countries making more rules on the separation of waste, it can feel frustrating and even confusing at times to separate it all into different containers. Which bin do I put this item into? Companies are the ones who manufacture this waste, so why do I need to deal with it? In this article, we’re going to take a look at the different alternatives, as well as how important waste separation is.

What is waste separation?

Waste separation (or waste segregation / trash sorting) is the process of sorting your trash into different bins depending on the materials or elements that it is composed of. This allows these items of trash to be more easily recycled as the trash facilities have separate streams of trash. It gives them much less sorting to do themselves. Every country (and even individual cities and regions) have their own ideas about how to do this. Some go for a simple biodegradable and non-biodegradable system. Others require sorting the trash into many categories, such as paper, glass, metals, plastic, food waste and a general ‘other’ category.

Whilst it takes a little time and effort to make the separation of trash work, it appears to be quite essential. The following paragraphs explore the alternatives and why, whilst they have their own merits, they are still problematic.

Alternative 1: Landfill

Example landfill
An example of a landfill.

Landfills are typically an easy and cost-effective way of managing trash. None of it is separated. All of it is simply dumped onto a patch of land dedicated for trash. It is a very simple solution that requires little money in the long term. When it is full, the landfill can be closed off just by burying the trash. Some landfills have even become parks. Because of how cheap it is, this is a common method implemented around the world.

However, this simplicity has an array of drawbacks. Waste from an open landfill can be blown into the environment by the wind. This can cause widespread disease. As the trash breaks down, it also releases significant amounts of methane. This is very harmful to the environment and, as you probably know, contributes to global warming. A well-managed landfill can use pipes to collect the methane before it is released into the environment to minimize this but they often can’t collect 100% of it. It is also possible for chemicals from the landfill to soak into the ground. This can impact the smell and quality of drinking water depending on where the landfill is located.

It also means that large patches of land become unavailable for development just so we can fill them with trash. When they are closed off, there are only so many things we can do with it afterwards due to the instability of the land. Sadly we need space for more than just parks! This is particularly bad for countries with limited free space. With a growing worldwide population, this is something that won’t get better over time.

Lastly one of the biggest disadvantages: large amounts of valuable resources that can be reused are simply going to waste. These materials spend potentially decades rotting instead of being useful to us. It is a given fact that our resources are finite and we should be careful with how we use them.

Alternative 2: Waste-to-energy

Waste-to-energy system
Waste incinerators can process lots of trash much more quickly than landfills.

Modern waste-to-energy systems take mixed types of trash and then incinerate it. They use the heat to boil water which turns to steam and spins turbines to generate electricity. Due to the more complex infrastructure needed for waste-to-energy, this is normally seen in more developed countries. Its main advantage is that trash does not go to landfill. It is immediately removed from the environment. It also gives us a valuable by-product in electricity, which we can use in our everyday lives. The amount of space needed for it is also significantly lower.

However, all of our waste results in large quantities of carbon dioxide emissions. We don’t need to tell you that we don’t need further increases of those! 😉

It also once again means that valuable resources go to waste (with one small exception: sometimes some metals can be recovered and recycled after burning). Since the trash is so quickly disposed of, it can mask the problems of excessive waste as it becomes out of sight and out of mind. It doesn’t come with any emotional cost of seeing the trash in practice. I guess this is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Alternative 3: Automatic trash sorting

This is a newer technique for waste management that is still being improved. The idea is that you continue to put all of trash into one bin as before, but the trash is automatically sorted through and separated for you by machines. This means that you can recycle with a high level of convenience. That is something that I’m sure a lot of people would be happy with.

Unfortunately it isn’t a perfect system and also comes at a very high price tag to implement. Furthermore, it can be very difficult for machines to detect the materials of some items. In addition, some items (such as glass, textiles and paper) can be contaminated if they are mixed in with other kinds of waste. This means they can’t easily be recycled. These two factors mean that, with current technology, the quality of the collected materials is lower. Less of it is recycled. Trash doesn’t just disappear. In a system based on recycling, there needs to be a buyer of these materials so that they can be turned into other products. The higher the quality of the materials, the more likely it is that they will be recycled.

In our view, with how the technology currently stands, separating trash seems like the better option for the time being due to its effectiveness and cost advantages. Still, this could be an exciting idea for the future if the technology improves.

So, how important is waste separation?

Now that we’ve looked at various alternatives, we can conclude by looking at how important trash separation is. It’s clear that there are benefits and drawbacks to every method. Nobody wants to deal with trash. Sadly, due to the number of people on our planet and the huge amount of resources being consumed by us all, we don’t believe we can afford to use landfills or to burn our trash. A radical re-think is needed.

We need to start viewing our waste not as something that is someone else’s problem, but as valuable raw materials that we can put back into the system for new products. It seems crazy that we mine materials from all over the world and then simply dump it or burn it after a short time, when we could use them again and again for other purposes. Of course, companies should also do their part by reducing the amount of trash where possible. They should make their products easier to recycle. Even if companies do their part, however, perishables such as meat (or replacements) will still have to come in plastic or metal. This means some level of trash separation will, as far as we know, always be favorable.

Despite the inconvenience of waste separation, it seems like the best option we have at the current time. If you want to begin switching to a society that is more mindful of the environment, then trash separation is going to be very important. Recycling offers an exciting opportunity. We transform our waste from an undesired expense into valuable raw materials. This is waste which can make money for our cities, regions and countries. When you have a system in place in your house (such as a bin with several trash separating sections), you can get used to it quite quickly. We separate our trash everyday now without really thinking about it.

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